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2024 Hewitt Award: Jonathan Richards​

Jonathan Richards was born in Fargo, ND, and grew up in Detroit Lakes, MN. He obtained his B.S. degree in biological sciences, with a minor in chemistry, at North Dakota State University in 2011. As an undergraduate researcher working in the laboratory of Dr. Robert Brueggeman, Richards honed his research skills, investigating the rpg4-mediated resistance to wheat stem rust in barley. This experience crystallized his research interests in molecular plant pathology and genomics. He began his doctoral degree program in the same lab, and his dissertation research focused on understanding the genetic and molecular basis of disease resistance and susceptibility in barley to net blotch, the fungal disease caused by Pyrenophora teres. After obtaining his Ph.D. degree in 2016, he joined Dr. Tim Friesen's lab at the USDA-ARS in Fargo, ND, as a postdoctoral researcher and characterized a novel effector gene, SnTox267, in the wheat pathogen, Parastagonospora nodorum. This unique discovery demonstrated how a single effector targets distinct host susceptibility pathways that differ in light dependency to induce programmed cell death. Additionally, he characterized local adaptation in P. nodorum populations, which linked host susceptibility gene prevalence and effector gene frequencies. Richards was inspired by the seminal research of H. H. Flor and the powerful scientific insights that can only be learned by studying molecular interactions from both the host and pathogen perspectives. These concepts shaped his scientific philosophy and ultimately his research interests toward a holistic approach to study plant-microbe interactions. 

In late 2018, Richards began his appointment as an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Pathology and Crop Physiology, Louisiana State University Agricultural Center. His career research goals are to advance our understanding of host-fungal interactions in fundamental ways and to translate these findings into improved disease management practices. Since his arrival at LSU, Richards has been exceptionally productive in unraveling the complexities of host resistance, pathogen virulence, and pathogen population dynamics in the rice–narrow brown leaf spot (NBLS) pathosystem. Previously considered sporadic, NBLS, caused by the fungus Cercospora janseana, has risen in prevalence and has been identified as a major concern for Louisiana rice growers. His group has rapidly fine mapped a major NBLS resistance gene and has identified promising quantitative resistance in elite rice germplasm. They used an innovative approach combining long-read DNA sequencing, comparative genomics, and map-based cloning to identify several strong candidate genes, which are currently being validated using CRISPR/Cas9. Richards also has prioritized his research on pathogen biology. His team's research efforts using next-generation sequencing have led to the first genomic characterization of C. janseana populations that revealed elevated genetic diversity and pathogen migration between rice-producing states. Additionally, they observed an even distribution of mating types and discovered genomic signatures of sexual reproduction, as well as prevalent QoI resistance. These findings have made major impacts on rice variety development and NBLS disease management. 

Richards has also focused on host resistance to frogeye leaf spot in soybean and implemented an automated image analysis workflow with machine learning to phenotype soybean accessions and mapping populations to identify quantitative resistance. Richards has also ventured into a multidisciplinary effort to understand the cause of Roseau cane (a salt- and submergence-tolerant wetland grass species important for the stability of wetlands) dieback, an economically and environmentally important disorder in the Louisiana coastal areas. His team has clarified the genetic diversity and population structure of Roseau cane in the state and revealed molecular pathways, including phytohormone signaling, activated under biotic and abiotic stresses that may be contributing to dieback resistance. 

Richards is an emerging authority on the functional and evolutionary genomics of two Cercospora species, C. sojina and C. janseana, and, therefore, is a much sought after collaborator both nationally and internationally. He has presented invited seminars on his research in the Departments of Plant Pathology in Kansas and Kentucky, as well as in Brazil (Universidade Federal de Vicosa) and Honduras (Universidad Nacional de Agricultura), an excellent testimony to his burgeoning research stature. Richards has had a prolific publication record with 31 publications (including 24 since obtaining his Ph.D. degree) in several premier and high-impact journals. Richards also has garnered competitive grants from USDA-NIFA and USDA-APHIS in support of his research (as PI $1,453,266 and co-PI $6,236,943). 

Richards has demonstrated an uncommon dedication to educating and training graduate and undergraduate students. So far, he has trained three Ph.D. students, three M.S. students, and seven undergraduate students. Furthermore, he has mentored three postdoctoral research associates, three research associates, and three visiting scholars. He also serves on the committees of 17 students from other departments and colleges. This service has broadened the research impact and scope of faculty members from these departments and colleges as well. He developed a new course, Microbial Genomics, covering the fundamental concepts of microbial genome organization, function, and evolution. In addition, the course also offers students hands-on experience in a diverse array of bioinformatic analyses. It has been an extremely popular course, with Richards receiving very high ratings for his teaching skills and knowledge. 

Richards is a committed member of APS, and the service rendered to the Society in his short career has been extraordinary. He has served as an associate and senior editor of Phytopathology and ab editor of PhytoFrontiers. He also has served as an editor for a special issue on Botrytis spp. and a focus issue on host resistance in Phytopathology. He served on a panel discussing federal funding opportunities at the Plant Health 2022 meeting and also has actively participated in the APS Southern Division by serving on the Awards Committee, presenting a workshop on association mapping in fungi, and participating in a networking panel. 

Within a short time, Richards has made enormous contributions through his insightful research that not only has generated fundamental knowledge but also has advanced the field of host-pathogen interactions and has positively impacted agriculture in Louisiana and beyond. ​