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​2023 Ruth Allen Award: Anna Whitfield​

Anna E. Whitfield was raised on a small family farm in South Georgia, and it was there that her passion for agriculture developed. These early experiences influenced her research, which focuses on developing a safe, secure food supply that minimizes threats to grower and consumer health while maximizing profit. Whitfield attended the University of Georgia for her undergraduate studies and while there had undergraduate research experiences in the Departments of Entomology, Crop & Soil Science, and Plant Pathology. She received an M.S. from the University of California at Davis and a Ph.D. in Plant Pathology from the University of Wisconsin. This research enabled her to address important questions about tospoviruses that impact food crops around the world. As a NIFA Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The Ohio State University, she expanded her research to include rhabdoviruses and their hemipteran vectors. In 2006, she joined the Department of Plant Pathology at Kansas State University and was promoted to Associate and Full Professor in 2011 and 2016, respectively. She moved to the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology at North Carolina State University in 2017 to pursue new research opportunities as part of the Emerging Plant Disease and Global Food Security Cluster.

Using innovative research technologies and addressing vector biology questions at multiple scales, Whitfield has elucidated the molecular determinants of vector transmission in some of the most widespread and impactful viruses affecting agronomic crops. Plant viruses are a significant threat to global food security, and arthropod-borne plant viruses constitute 50% of the newly emerging plant disease threats. Whitfield has addressed research questions and provided solutions for viruses infecting the major food crops including, maize, wheat, and tomatoes. For this work, her team employs a combination of genomic and molecular biology research tools to define the mechanism of virus transmission. They also use the knowledge of these interactions to develop new strategies to disrupt the disease cycle in the field. Insect vectors are a dual threat to plant production because they cause direct damage by feeding on plants and indirect damage by transmitting viruses. Whitfield's research focuses on important vectors of plant diseases including planthoppers, thrips, aphids, and mites. In addition to biotechnological approaches for disease and arthropod control, her lab has been actively involved in developing plants with combined resistance to vector and viral pathogens to provide durable resistance. With the continued emergence of vector borne viral pathogens, Whitfield's research is directly applicable to industrial and subsistence farms. This work has led to over 90 papers, reviews, and patents on vector-borne plant pathogens.

Whitfield and her collaborators are turning pests and pathogens from plant enemies into plant allies. The goal of this work is to develop insect-transmitted virus systems for gene expression, gene silencing, and genome editing in maize that allow rapid and transient modification of traits to avert threats to growing maize crops. She contributed to a multi-institutional and multi-disciplinary team of scientists in hopes of developing plants with improved resistance to biotic (fungi, insects, and viruses) and abiotic threats (drought) using a viral delivery system, thus cutting years off the current molecular breeding and genetic modification strategies. To reach this goal, the Whitfield team developed an infectious clone of a maize-infecting rhabdovirus that will enable delivery of gRNAs and Cas9 to the plant. The team also developed methodologies for generating genome-edited planthopper vectors, thus enabling for the first time the ability to genetically dissect virus and vector components of transmission of negative-strand RNA viruses. The payoffs for developing the system are large and facilitate understanding of virus, vector, and maize biology while producing an advanced system for modifying agronomic traits in a major crop.

The Whitfield team has translated the knowledge of virus transmission and biology into new disease control strategies. Using the TSWV and thrips systems, they identified the specific viral protein required for attachment and entry into the insect vector. They generated transgenic plants expressing the attachment protein of TSWV that reduced transmission of viruses by blocking virus binding and dissemination in the thrips vector. For identification of the determinants of vector competence, her research group has contributed to the development of transcriptome, proteome, and genome resources for thrips. They characterized the first thrips proteins that directly interact with the TSWV particle and are candidates for antiviral strategies aimed to disrupt the transmission cycle. Using more traditional approaches, they have mined tospovirus diversity to design transgenes to provide broad-spectrum resistance targeting tospoviruses. This is particularly important because many of the common resistance genes that protect plants from these pathogens are failing. Indeed, the emergence of resistance breaking (RB) TSWV isolates is leading to renewed interest in transgenic strategies for virus control. These plants have proven to be resistant to TSWV and related tospoviruses including RB-TSWV.

Whitfield is recognized for exemplary mentoring and training of the next generation of diverse agricultural scientists and promoting diversity in STEM disciplines. She served as the inaugural chair of the NCSU Diversity and Climate Committee and held that position for three years. Through her efforts as a mentor and leader she has fostered diversity among undergraduate and graduate students, postdocs, and staff. Of particular interest are the 41 undergraduate researchers that Whitfield has mentored, providing a professional bridge to the biological and agricultural sciences for many of these students. The scientists that she mentors advance to significant scientific career tracks in government, industry, and academia (faculty members at University of Georgia, Texas A&M, University of Philippines, University of Costa Rica, and Auburn University). Whitfield has served in multiple years on grant panels for USDA and NSF. She served on the Editorial Boards of Plant Disease and Phytopathology, and she currently serves as a Senior Editor for Phytobiomes, PhytoFrontiers, and MPMI, on the Editorial Board of Journal of Virology, New Phytologist, and Annual Review of Virology. She also serves on the Tospovirus and Rhabdovirus Study Groups for the International Committee for Taxonomy of Viruses (ICTV). It is clear that Whitfield has a global reputation as a leader in plant pathology, entomology, and virology research.