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Interview with Professor Kee Hoon Sohn, Winner of the Hwa-nong Award

2023-11-23l Hit 719

The Hwa-nong Foundation established by Dr. Baekhyun Cho, the first dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at SNU, annually awards the Hwa Nong Prize to outstanding researchers in the field of agricultural sciences. We interviewed Professor Kee Hoon Sohn, a plant microbiology major in the Department of Agricultural Biotechnology at SNU, who won the Hwa Nong Prize this year.

Q1. Congratulations on winning the Hwa Nong Prize, Prof. Son. Please introduce yourself briefly and share your thoughts on winning the Hwa Nong Prize.

A. I was appointed as an associate professor of plant microbiology in March this year. I worked in the UK as a PhD student and postdoctoral researcher from 2004 to early 2013, and I first took a position at the Institute of Agriculture and Environment (Massey University) in New Zealand in 2013. Then I moved to the Department of Life Sciences at Postech in 2015, and came to SNU in March this year as a plant microbiology major. My research field is plant immunology, which studies the mechanisms of how plants develop resistance to invading pathogens.
The first dean of CALS, Dr. Hwa-Nong Cho, made many great achievements and was the first person in Korea to publish a research paper in the field of agriculture, so I think it's a very meaningful award and I take it as an encouragement to continue basic research in the field of agriculture.

Q2. Could you briefly introduce your research on immune receptor selection based on solanum americanum?

A. Solanum americanum is a common weed in the countryside in Korea, and it is also a medicinal crop used in Korean medicine. It is a plant in the solanaceae with small black fruits. Peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and potatoes are members of the solanaceae, but solanum americanum is not a crop that we cultivate and use for food, but it is a plant that has recently gained attention as a material for basic research and applied research by finding new genes. Our main research is to find new immune receptors that plants need to recognize pathogens, study how they function, and introduce them to crops so that crops do not get sick.

Q3. What made you decide to do this research?

A. Originally, I was very interested in plants of solanaceae, and I was thinking about whether there was a model plant among solanaceae to make my research a little faster, but when I saw that overseas researchers were doing research on solanum americanum, I thought that I should also research using solanum americanum, and we started. In other words, I was looking for a good model plant for research among solanaceae, and the plant I found was solanum americanum.

Q4. Could you briefly introduce the research process of your lab?

A. The ultimate goal of our lab is to see how the diversity of plant immune receptors came about from an evolutionary point of view. In the case of solanum americanum, you can think of more than 500 immune receptors with specific structures, and they all recognize proteins from different pathogens. We want to first identify their functions and then how they recognize the same pathogens in different plants. We are also interested in the mechanisms of convergent evolution of plant immune receptors. For example, the same immune receptor in pepper and strawberry, we want to know how the same protein recognizes the same pathogen in these two plants. To do that, we have to have multiple immunoreceptors whose functions are known. Therefore, mainly in the lab, we look for examples of pathogens and plant genomics and which proteins in the pathogen are recognized by which proteins in the plant. In other words, there are three main research topics: finding genes that do a good job, how do the proteins they make perform their functions in the cell, and how can we apply these proteins to actual crops once we know their functions.

Q5. What is plant immunology?

A. Plant immunology is actually not that old of a discipline, it's just something that people have been seeing for a very long time, and it's only recently that we've started to study it as a discipline. It started with the understanding of how the innate immune system in plants is activated.
The most important discovery was that plants have immune receptors that can activate an innate immune system very similar to animal cells, which was first discovered in the 1990s. In our lab, we're looking at what happens when a plant cell encounters a specific protein from a pathogen, and there are a number of things that happen in the cell after recognition of the pathogen that lead to the expression of the immune response, and there are a number of different areas of research, both nationally and internationally, that are looking at the cell biological aspects, the epigenetic aspects, and so on. In our lab, we do molecular genetic studies of the recognition process.

Q6. Finally, what would you like to say to students?

A. In the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, there are so many different fields of study, and even within the same major, there are people who do research at the cellular level, and there are people who do research at the individual level, and there are people who do research at the population level, and there are people who do very practical applied research, and there are people who do basic research, and there are people who do engineering-related work. Therefore, I think it's a good college for students to think about various things, and I hope that some of them will be interested in these topics that I am researching, and I hope that we can do interesting research together in the future.