Joss Etty

2022 PhD Studentship
Disease control through plant fungi co-evolution
Has antimicrobial production shaped fungal endophyte diversification?
Milner Centre for Evolution, University of Bath


Almost every plant lives in association with one or more fungi. These associations range from beneficial to antagonistic and many are still unknown.

My project looks at the fungi living inside plants with seemingly no impact on the plant host, causing no visible symptoms of disease. These microfungi of plants are called fungal endophytes (endo = in, phyte = plant).

I study the antibiotic properties of these fungi and use what I find to paint a clearer picture of how fungi may have evolved to live inside plants. Learning more about plant-fungus relationships can help us model climate change and develop new ways to counter fungal disease of the crops we eat.

Fusarium Head Blight is a fungal disease that spoils huge amounts of cereals like wheat, barley and oats every year. Learning more about endophyte fungi may help us develop ways to combat the massive crop spoilage inflicted by fungal disease. Photo: Unsplash/Larry Costales
How evolution has shaped plant disease control

Plants rely heavily on fungi for survival. Fungi are an incredibly old form of life, they existed long before plants, and may have even given a helping hand when plants were just beginning to evolve.

Endophytes in particular are receiving increased focus as a good source of microbial biological control agents, being able to provide resistance to pests and pathogens.

However, there is much yet to be discovered about their identity and how natural selection has shaped their biology.

My research looks at the drivers of adaptation and which key innovations have contributed to diversification of endophytic fungi. Building on previous work, I focus on the development and maintenance of antimicrobial production as a key driver of adaptation.

I use the abundant collections at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and, through their partnerships, I am able to sample endophytes of crop-wild relatives as well as key forestry species.

Experiments to uncover an unseen world

I am excited by the potential of this research to translate to discovery and applications from agriculture to education.

As part of my work, I replicate competitive environments in the lab to analyse growth suppression and antimicrobial production. Outside of the lab, this approach can be used for educational purposes to directly demonstrate the causes and consequences of natural selection almost in real time.

After my PhD I hope to stay active in research. In the long run I want to build bridges between academia and the public, I want to inspire the next generation of scientists.

Researching fungal evolution at the University of Bath and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, together with the outreach-focused ethos of the Evolution Education Trust, will put me right where I want to be to achieve this goal.

I want to let the world know about the silent, invisible world happening all around us!

More about Joss’ work:

Researcher profile