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Plant scientist wins national pathology award

August 24, 2020 — 

Dr. Dilantha Fernando has been named the recipient of the 2020 Canadian Phytopathological Society Award for Outstanding Research.  Considered the Society’s most prestigious award, the honour recognizes outstanding research involving new concepts, the discovery of new phenomena, or principles in plant pathology or novel application of existing principles.

The citation reads:

2020 CPS Award for Outstanding Research: Dr. W. G. D. Fernando 

Dr. Dilantha Fernando joined the Department of Plant Science at the University of Manitoba in 1998 and was promoted to full professor in 2006. Dr. Fernando’s research has made a tremendous impact on Canadian agriculture and the discipline of plant pathology. He has demonstrated innovative research in plant disease management and exceptional productivity, with 145 peer-reviewed articles, 15 book chapters, 78 proceeding papers and 240 abstracts. He has received more than $33 M in external funding for his program, and is regularly consulted by grower groups and government agencies for disease- related issues associated with both crop production and international trade. He is known nationally and internationally as a leader in epidemiology and disease management, especially on blackleg of canola. He has supervised 31 graduate students, 80 highly qualified personnel and taught many plant pathology courses. He was the president for CPS in 2018- 2019, and was recognized by APS as a Fellow in 2019. 

Dr. Fernando is a world authority on blackleg of canola. His research on blackleg pathotypes led to industry-wide efforts on R-gene rotations in canola production to reduce the risk of resistance breakdown, and helped seed companies select effective R genes for breeding new blackleg resistant canola cultivars. His lab contributed substantially to the development of 37 canola or HEAR (high erucic acid rapeseed) canola cultivars with excellent resistance to blackleg, white rust and Fusarium wilt. The team effort and the achievement in developing the first Round-Up Ready HEAR cultivar was honoured by the Canadian government with a Canada Post stamp in 28 February 2002. By providing sound disease management advices based on his research, Dr. Fernando has built a reputation in the canola industry and among producers. Dr. Fernando’s stature in blackleg research is also respected internationally. Dr. Fernando’s research and collaborations with other scientists in Canada was instrumental in dealing with the challenge of blackleg associated with Canadian canola export to China. 

His research on Fusarium head blight of wheat has also had tremendous impact. In 1993, Dr. Fernando’s pioneering studies on the dynamics of ascospore release, dispersal and ensuing infection substantially increased the knowledge of epidemiology of this important disease in Canada. Several novel findings in the epidemiology, population genetics, populations structure, genotypic diversity and genetic variability have been published following Dr. Fernando’s earlier studies. His recent efforts to understand the population structure of F. graminearum on the Canadian Prairies have led to improved focus on the detection of toxin-producing strains. This work has increased the level of vigilance in grain inspection and improved safety of the food and feed industry. Dr. Fernando’s lab was also instrumental in setting up the first wheat nursery for FHB resistance screening in Canada. This nursery, along with a blackleg nursery in Carman, MB, has helped breeders screen new materials for disease resistance efficiently. 

Dr. Fernando is also a pioneer in advancing biological control of crop diseases in Canada. One of the seminal papers stemmed from Dr. Fernando’s discovery of unique organic volatile compounds in Pseudomonas chlororaphis PA23 that inhibit sclerotium formation as well as spore production from overwintering structures of the pathogen. His studies on the mechanisms of biocontrol have led to many novel discoveries, including antibiosis and its differential efficacy against different plant pathogens, gene expression/regulation mechanisms, and biofilm formation in biocontrol. 

In recognition of his outstanding research in plant pathology and crop disease management, far-reaching impact in research on crop industry in Canada, exceptional teaching and mentorship, services and leadership provided to CPS and APS, as well as extraordinary outreach, Dr. Fernando is the recipient of the 2020 CPS Award for Outstanding Research. 

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