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.
Frances Trail grew up in Brooklyn, NY, and earned a bachelor's degree in botany from the University of North Carolina (1981), a master's degree in plant pathology from Oregon State (1984), and a Ph.D. degree in plant pathology from Cornell University (1991). Her Ph.D. dissertation investigated the role of specific properties of cutin-degrading enzymes in mediating the tissue specificity of fungal plant pathogens. She received an NIH Postdoctoral Fellowship to train further at Michigan State University (MSU), where her research provided the first proof that a polyketide synthase gene was required for aflatoxin biosynthesis in Aspergillus. She joined the faculty at MSU in 1996, where she is professor and associate chair in the Department of Plant Biology and professor in the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences.
Trail's pioneering, innovative, and internationally respected research focuses on the Fusarium head blight pathogen of grain crops, Fusarium graminearum. In addition to spearheading early efforts to obtain a whole-genome sequence of the Fusarium head blight pathogen, she is largely responsible for developing this organism into a model for the study of fruiting body and spore development. Trail has long combined classical genetics with creative and cutting-edge approaches to answer questions about the pathogen life cycle, always taking into account the significance of the host context and the implications for disease spread. For example, her team discovered the mechanisms of the development and dispersal of Fusarium sexual spores; this included physically demonstrating that that ejected spores reach among the highest acceleration rates ever recorded in a biological system, identifying key genes whose expression is associated with specific life-cycle stages, and discovering the essential role of calcium ion channels and calcium uptake systems in spore discharge and sexual development. Trail's group also characterized critical genes involved in the synthesis, timing, and localization of mycotoxins in F. graminearum, a major step toward addressing a large-scale economic and health issue. Trail has continually been at the forefront of developing genomic and gene expression resources for the Fusarium research community, matching the remarkable progress made in model fungi such as Aspergillus, while at the same time contributing to other pathosystems, such as the sequenced genomes of Colletotrichum fungi. Her group has recently begun exploring the phytobiome, identifying wheat endophytes that may antagonize F. graminearum and identifying new roles of the microbiome in pathogen spore dispersal. Furthermore, for the last five years she has been identifying antifungal compounds in lichens, including those that inhibit expression of secondary metabolite biosynthetic genes (including mycotoxins) in other fungi. She has purified and characterized several of these compounds and is testing them for utility in pathogen control.
In recent years, Trail forged new collaborative projects aimed at using evolutionary approaches to reveal the transcriptomics and developmental genetics of the pathogenic life cycle. She has demonstrated a highly effective and innovative pipeline that identifies genes whose evolution has led to phenotypic differences among Fusarium species and other fungi. The approach combines comparative genomics, developmental biology, and transcriptomics to identify key genes that govern spore germination and growth. In Trail's recently published work, this method was immensely powerful for identifying gene interaction networks underlying the reproductive development and the initiation of fungal pathogenesis in Fusarium. Her transcriptomic studies also revealed the novel findings that hundreds of long, noncoding RNAs are specifically produced during the Fusarium sexual cycle, possibly with roles in fruiting body formation and that light-sensing receptors may also be important developmental regulators. The success of this pipeline led to $4.75 million in NIH and USDA funding in 2019. Together, Trail's body of work has been highly influential in the fields of mycology and plant pathology.
Trail has also made a significant impact on the field of phytopathology through her teaching and mentorship. She has taught the Biology of Fungi at Michigan State University for 23 years, introducing scores of undergraduate and graduate students to the joy of mycology through lab experiments and collecting forays. She has a legacy as a teacher and mentor of 21 postdoctoral researchers and 11 graduate students, as well as training 40 undergraduate and high-school students through research projects in her lab. In her teaching and advising, Trail is known for being extraordinarily approachable, kind, and supportive. Four of her former trainees founded university research programs focused on plant pathogens, and dozens of others are employed in university research or teaching positions or in private industry. Trail makes her research accessible to the public by participating in outreach activities with her lab members, teaching fungal anatomy, visualizing fungal spores, and understanding mushrooms. Her research has been well received at local elementary schools and during annual MSU outreach events such as the Fascination of Plants Day.
Trail has performed dedicated service to the scientific community through society and university committee work and peer review. She has been a member of APS since 1989, serving as three-time Mycotoxin Committee chair and as Special Session organizer and invited speaker. She has also performed service for the Genetics Society of America, the Fusarium Head Blight Forum, and the Mycological Society of America, serving as the executive editor of Mycologia (2014–2017) and cohosting the Mycological Society Annual Meeting in 2015. In the policy arena, she has filled numerous committee roles on the USDA Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative since 2001 and was a cofounder and chair (2007–2011) of the Fusarium Genomes Research Policy Group.
In summary, the breadth of Trail's research is phenomenal. She has used her passion for mycology to bridge the gap between the fundamental developmental mycology and life cycle of important pathogens, which has influenced new ideas for controlling fungi that cause diseases of agricultural crops. She is community engaged and a fabulous mentor to students and postdocs.