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​2020 Syngenta Award

​This award is given by Syngenta Crop Protection to an APS member for an outstanding recent contribution to teaching, research, or extension in plant pathology.

Svetlana Folimonova
​University of Florida

Svetlana Folimonova was born in Moscow, Russia, and received her PhD in microbiology from Moscow State University in 1996. She held a postdoctoral position at the S. R. Noble Foundation, Ardmore, Oklahoma (1999-2001) before moving to the University of Florida, where she held postdoctoral and research scientist positions in the laboratory of William Dawson at the Citrus Research and Education Center in Lake Alfred (2001-2012). Folimonova was appointed assistant professor of plant pathology at the University of Florida in 2012 and moved to the main campus in Gainesville. In 2016, she was promoted to associate professor. Her nomination for the Syngenta Award is based specifically upon her outstanding recent contributions to research on Citrus tristeza virus (CTV) and her novel leadership in gaining an understanding of viral Superinfection Exclusion (SIE). Over the last five years, Folimonova's research group has dissected CTV virus:virus and virus:plant interactions, producing a portfolio of papers and patents. Her fundamental efforts are illuminating our understanding of SIE. This is particularly valuable fundamental information with immediate translational value. SIE, or cross protection, is currently used in many places of the world where citrus plants are deliberately infected with mild variants of CTV to protect them from more severe CTV variants. Millions of trees have been protected from CTV this way without an understanding of how it  works. Folimonova's research accomplishments on CTV SIE have achieved international recognition; she has recently given several very prominent invited talks at national and international scientific meetings. ​

Folimonova's research has sought to elucidate the mechanism of SIE, where some CTV isolates have the ability to completely exclude others from the same host plant. Her data suggest that CTV SIE does not utilize RNA silencing, the model proposed to explain SIE for a number of plant viruses. Furthermore, CTV SIE is not explained by any other previously described SIE mechanism. In the case of CTV, SIE appears to be systemic—it not only functions in cells infected with the primary virus, but also in the cells that were not infected. Moreover, CTV SIE appears to operate at both the whole organism level and the cellular level. Research from Folimonova's group points to a unique CTV-encoded protein, p33, as the most important determinant in SIE. Furthermore, they have demonstrated that p33 self-interacts, shares characteristics of viral movement proteins but also modulates a host immune defense. She also just published a paper where they now have evidence that a CTV-generated long non-coding RNA also affects host immunity. This RNA has been described by several labs over the last decade but Folimonova is the first to describe a function. She is leading the way in deciphering a novel, powerful and highly complex SIE mechanism in CTV—one of the most economically important plant viruses in the world.

Another objective of Folimonova's CTV research is to translate the results of molecular mechanistic research on CTV SIE to inform citrus biotechnology. Ten years ago, Folimonova and colleagues developed CTV-based vectors for expression of antimicrobial proteins for management of citrus greening caused by Candidatus Liberibacter asiaticus. Since that time other CTV vectors have been generated so that they can be used for multiple inoculations on the same trees that were previously infected with various wild type strains of CTV. Given that many citrus trees are naturally infected with CTV, an understanding of SIE is critical to the success of using the correct CTV vectors in established citrus plantings. This research has resulted in five U.S. patents and three international patents, and it is being licensed by private industry for attempts to control citrus greening, a disease currently threatening the entire Florida citrus industry.

The funding for Folimonova's research program is outstanding. She supports her research from a variety of agencies including the National Science Foundation, United States Department of Agriculture, Citrus Research and Development Foundation, the California CDFA, and the citrus producer Southern Gardens. The amount of funding is impressive, but it is the diversity and quality that show her excellence. Folimonova has had continuous NSF support for fundamental studies on CTV and SIE now for several funding rounds. This is highly competitive funding and, it is important to note, she is not using model plants and viruses—she is using CTV and citrus. Her funding from USDA and CDFA reflects her continued efforts on HLB, which is to be commended and is critical for Florida and U. S. citrus production. Her Southern Gardens funding is for translational application of recombinant CTVs to help manage HLB. A private entity like Southern Gardens would not fund her work if they did not see translational potential.

In summary, Folimonova is very deserving of the Syngenta Award for her outstanding contributions to research on CTV, particularly SIE, over the last approximately five years. Her publication and patent portfolio, as well as her funding and international recognition, are extraordinary. All of this is made even more noteworthy by the very demanding host-pathogen system that she is working on—one with world-wide economic importance.