Big Honor for Study of Little Pest

Melissa Mitchum receives award from American Phytopathological Society

Melissa Mitchum, associate professor of plant sciences in the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, has received the American Phytopathological Society’s 2015 Syngenta Award for outstanding contributions to teaching, research or extension in plant pathology.

The awards banquet for this honor will be Aug. 1 at the APS meeting in Pasadena, Calif. Mitchum will receive an engraved award and a $1,500 honorarium from Syngenta Crop Protection.

“This award is important to me because it is an award from my colleagues,” Mitchum said. “I’ve been blessed to have fantastic mentors, wonderful and supportive colleagues, and outstanding staff, students and post-docs throughout my career. None of these research discoveries would have been possible without them.”

The major focus of research in Mitchum’s lab is the molecular basis of plant-nematode interactions with an emphasis on the interaction between the soybean cyst nematode and its host plant, soybean. Soybean cyst nematode is consistently the most damaging U.S. soybean pest, causing more than $1 billion in crop losses annually.

Mitchum received a B.S. degree in biology from the University of Puget Sound in 1993, an M.S. degree in plant pathology from the University of Nebraska in 1995, and a Ph.D. degree in plant pathology from North Carolina State University in 2001. She then spent two years as a post-doctoral research associate at Duke University before being hired as an assistant professor at the University of Missouri in 2003 to develop a program in plant nematology. Nematology is the study of nematodes, or roundworms. She is a faculty member in the Division of Plant Sciences and the Bond Life Sciences Center.

APS’ announcement of the Syngenta honor recognizes Mitchum’s “multiple significant discoveries that have resulted in seminal publications within the discipline of plant nematology — they represent exceptional professional achievements for an individual at this stage of her career.”

Mitchum’s team has made important discoveries in nematode effector protein function, as well as in how plants respond to nematode infection. For example, Mitchum’s lab has published multiple papers on cyst nematode effector proteins that function as molecular and functional mimics of endogenous plant CLAVATA3/ESR (CLE) peptides — remarkably the first time CLE signaling peptides had been identified outside of the plant kingdom. Mitchum’s lab recently collaborated with scientists to confirm the identity of a soybean cyst nematode resistance gene Rhg4 as a serine hydroxymethyltransferase in a research report published in Nature in October 2012. The identification of SHMT as a disease resistance gene was a first of its kind.

Mitchum is a member of the CAFNR Learning Improvement Committee. She has advised seven graduate students and 21 undergraduates at CAFNR. She serves as the Division of Plant Sciences faculty representative for the Plant Stress Biology graduate program area on the Graduate Education and Research Committee. She is the faculty sponsor for the Students for the Advancement of Plant Pathology graduate student association. In 2014 she received the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources’ Outstanding Senior Teacher Award.