The society grants this honor to a current APS member in recognition of distinguished contributions to plant pathology or to The American Phytopathological Society. Fellow recognition is based on significant contributions in one or more of the following areas: original research, teaching, administration, professional and public service, and/or extension and outreach.
Jean Beagle Ristaino
North Carolina State University
Jean Beagle Ristaino has spent more than 40 years contributing to our understanding of Phytophthora diseases of global importance. She was born in Washington, DC, and earned an undergraduate degree in biological sciences (1975) and an MS degree in plant pathology from the University of Maryland (1982) studying Phytophthora sojae. After two years as a research scientist in the Soilborne Disease Laboratory at USDA Beltsville, she went to the University of California Davis and earned a PhD (1987). Ristaino joined the Department of Plant Pathology at North Carolina State University in 1987, was promoted with tenure to associate professor in 1993 and professor in 1998. She was named a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor in 2012. In 2013, she was named a Jefferson Science fellow in the Bureau for Food Security at USAID and has served as a Fulbright research scholar in Italy in 2018. She currently directs the Emerging Plant Disease and Global Food Security cluster at NC State. Ristaino's research on the epidemiology and genetics of Phytophthora spp. has fundamentally changed how we understand this important group of plant pathogens. Her groundbreaking research, published in Nature, has completely changed our understanding of the fundamentals of one of the most important epidemics in modern history, the Irish potato famine. Ristaino's lab was the first to use historic herbarium specimens from global 19th century late blight outbreaks to study the population genetics of the pathogen. Her lab has addressed questions on the center of origin, source, and global spread of 19th century Phytophthora infestans outbreaks using whole genome sequencing from modern day and historic samples and examined the evolutionary history of this pathogen. She and colleagues sequenced genomes from more than seventy 19th century and modern samples and compared their genomes to those of recent global isolates. Surprisingly, a suite of effector genes differed between ancestral and modern lineages. Using microsatellite-based genotyping, she named the ancestral FAM-1 lineage, identified Andean sources of the 19th century lineages and documented its spread and persistence globally into the early 20th century. She also identified the FAM-1 lineage causing disease in both New and Old-World populations of the pathogen and spread to six continents. Ristaino's team developed The USABlight Disease Surveillance System and has developed conventional and real time PCR, LAMP, volatile, and microneedle-based detection tools to identify the pathogen. Her lab helped describe the new hybrid species, Phytophthora andina, found in Ecuador and Peru that shares an ancestral haplotype with the famine-era lineage of P. infestans. She has also named a new species, Phytophthora acaciae, on Acacia trees in Brazil. Ristaino also developed morphological and molecular diagnostic tools including a Lucid key for species identification and has conducted Phytophthora diagnostic workshops on six continents to improve capacity in the developing world to identify and manage Phytophthora diseases. She developed The Global Phytophthora Diagnostics Network on social media, shared cultures, trained visiting scientists, and deployed technologies for conducting rapid and accurate diagnostic assays. Her recent work as a Fulbright scholar in Italy involved organizing a Mediterranean Phytophthora diagnostics workshop and organizing a team of scientists to collect and genotype P. infestans in the region. A significant example of her leadership has been the formation of a new cluster on Emerging Plant Disease and Global Food Security at NC State. As its director, Ristaino led efforts to hire four cluster faculty that are now developing new basic knowledge to understand the fundamental basis of emerging infectious diseases caused by plant pathogens—including the development of tools—enabling a more rapid response to contain and limit potential damage by emerging threats. She is editing a book on emerging plant disease and global food security and organized a recent keynote session at the International Congress of Plant Pathology on the subject.
Ristaino's interest in plant pathology goes beyond the science and encompasses the human perspective. She has made it a point to not only study plant pathology, but to investigate it in the context of history and culture. For example, she has visited the holding islands used for European immigrants during the potato famines and has done research in the villages in the Andes where both potatoes and Phytophthora most likely originated. She used archival letters to link Charles Darwin to plant pathology. Darwin had late blight on his farm, studied the disease using tubers brought back from Chile, and funded breeding work to find resistance to the pathogen. Furthermore, through her book Pioneering Women in Plant Pathology, she has made a tremendous contribution to our understanding of the critical role that women have played in our science. Engaging the public with her science has always been a priority. Ristaino's late blight research has generated a tremendous amount of positive press coverage by the media, including CNN and the Discovery channel, NPR, the BBC, Voice of America and hundreds of newspaper reports, blogs and websites to share the story of late blight and the potato famine with the public. Her diagnostic PCR assays for Phytophthora spp. was licensed with Carolina Biologicals. A forensic PCR kit for the late blight pathogen was developed and used to teach PCR in high schools. She developed a traveling science museum exhibit called CSI Dublin: Hunt for a Killer and conducted museum talks in North Carolina and at the Boston Museum of Science. She lectured and prepared an exhibit for Spuds Unearthed at the U.S. Botanic Gardens. She recently organized an outreach session at the Harvard Museum of Sciences on Crop Diseases that Threaten Food Security and Your Breakfast. Ristaino has served as an AAAS fellow and worked with the EPA to develop policy on alternatives to methyl bromide. She also served as an advisor to the Gates Foundation and World Coffee Research on issues related to emerging plant disease. She is truly an ambassador for our science, changing not only the understanding and direction of our own research, but also influencing how the general public views science and scientists.
View additional APS Fellows