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Jean Ristaino

Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology

William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor

Director Emerging Plant Disease and Global Food Security Cluster

2320 Plant Sciences Building


My lab works on emerging plant diseases that threaten global food security.  A major focus of research is to understand the factors that contribute to disease emergence including the epidemiology and population genetics of Oomycete plant pathogens in the genus PhytophthoraPhytophthora infestans caused the Irish potato famine in the 1840s, and is a reemerging threat to global food security. We study the population genetics and migrations of both historic and present day strains of the pathogen. My lab was part of a multi-investigator group that sequenced the genome of the pathogen. We are now using the genome sequence to develop novel strategies for managing disease in the field. Our team has developed a web portal called that can be used to track recent outbreaks of disease using geospatial analystics. We also work on other pathogens of tropical crop plants including black Sigatoka on banana, downy mildew of tobacco, soilborne fungi and coffee rust that are threats to global food security. Dr. Ristaino serves as the director of the “Emerging Plant Disease and Global Food Security” cluster at NC State, has served as a Jefferson Science Fellow for the US Department of State and received a Fulbright European Research Scholar Award to work with the University of Catania on late blight in Italy in 2018. In 2020, I was elected a Fellow of the American Phytopathological Society in August 2020 and was named a AAAS Fellow in November, 2020. In 2022, Dr. Ristaino will serve as a Fulbright Scholar in the Republic of Ireland.

Plant diseases don’t stop at a nation’s borders and miles of oceans don’t prevent their spread, either. That’s why plant disease surveillance, improved plant disease detection systems and predictive plant disease modeling – integrated at the global scale – are necessary to mitigate future plant disease outbreaks and protect the global food supply, according to a team of researchers in a new commentary published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

See local CBS17 news on the PNAS paper and Washington Post report “Plant Pandemics and how they could endanger our food supply. Scientists sound alarm on growing menace”.

In many contexts and times, diseases have reshaped life, whether it be human life, animal life or plant life. I  gave a podcast on the consequence of plant diseases and the Irish Potato famine for the 2020 class Wicked Problems Wolfpack Solutions. In this podcast, I share own experience with plant pathology, my global travels to track outbreaks and then talk about my efforts to understand the history of the potato famine and why it is relevant to controlling emerging pathogens of all kinds today.

Visit my at lab for further information

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Selected Publications

Li, Z,, Liu, Y., Hossain, O., Paul, R.,  Yao, S.,  Wu, S., Ristaino, J. B.,  Zhu, Y.,  Wei, Q.  2021.  Real-time monitoring of plant stresses via chemiresistive profiling of leaf volatiles by a wearable sensor. Matter 4 (7), 2553-2570

Paul, R., Ostermann, E., Chen, Y.,  Saville, A. C.,  Yang, Y.,  Gu, Z.,  Whitfield, A. E.  Ristaino, J. B., and Wei. Q. 2021. Integrated Microneedle-Smartphone Nucleic Acid Amplification Platform for In-Field Diagnosis of Plant Diseases.  Biosensors and Bioelectronics 187:113312.

Saville, A. and Ristaino, J. B. 2021. Global historic pandemics caused by the FAM-1 genotype of Phytophthora infestans one six continents. Nature Scientific Reports 11: 12335.

Ristaino, J. B, AndersonP.,  Brauman, K. A.,  Cunniffe, N. J.,  FederoffN.,  Garrett, K. A., Gilligan, C., Holmes, T., Martin, M., MacDonald, G. K., Neenan, P.,  Records, A.,  Schmale, D., Tateosian, L.  2021. The Persistent Threat of Emerging Plant Diseases to Global Food Security. Proc. National Academy Sciences, USA.

McMillan, H. M.,  Zebell, S. G.,  Ristaino, J. B.,  Dong, X. and Kuehn, M. 2021. Protective Plant Immune Responses are Elicited by Bacterial Outer Membrane Vesicles. Cell Host and Microbe. Cell Reports 34:108645.

Paul, R., Ostermann,E., Gu, , Ristaino, J. and Wei, Q. 2020.  DNA Extraction from Plant Leaves Using a Microneedle Patch. Current Protocols in Plant Biology 5, e20104

Ristaino, J. B. 2020. The importance of mycological and plant herbaria in tracking a plant killer. Front. Ecol. Evol.  7:521.

Ristaino, J. B., Saville, A. C., Paul, R., Cooper, D. and Wei, Q. Comparison of LAMP, real-time and Digital PCR for detection of Phytophthora infestans.  Plant Disease:

Ristaino, J. B., Cooke, D.E.L., Acuña, I., Muñoz, M. 2018. The Threat of Late Blight to Global Food Security. Pages 101-133 in: Emerging Plant Disease and Global Food Security. A. Records and J. B. Ristaino, eds. American Phytopathological Society Press, St. Paul.

Paul, R., Saville, A. C.,  Hansel, C.,  Ye, Y.,  Ball, C.  Williams, A.,  Chang, X.,  Chen, C., Gu, Z., Ristaino, J. B.,  and Wei, Q. 2019. Extraction of Plant DNA by Microneedle Patch for Rapid Detection of Plant Diseases. ACS Nano 13 6540-6549. DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.9b00193.

Li, Z., Paul, R., Tis, T.  ,  Saville, A. C. , Hansel, J. C., Ristaino, J. B. and Wei, Q.  2019. Noninvasive Plant Disease Diagnostics Enabled by Smartphone-Based Fingerprinting of Leaf Volatiles. Nature Plants 5: 856-866.

Saville, A. and Ristaino, J. B.  2019.  Genetic structure and subclonal variation of extant and recent US lineages of Phytophthora infestansPhytopathology 109:1614-1627


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Date: 07/01/23 - 6/30/26
Amount: $617,500.00
Funding Agencies: US Dept. of Agriculture - National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA)

In this proposal, we aim to study and develop a transformative plant wearable sensor that can be deployed on-plant for continuous monitoring of biotic and abiotic stresses of plants and their microenvironment to inform plant health status and early detection of plant diseases. This multifunctional plant wearable sensor will include an array of ligand-functionalzied chemiresistive sensors to profile plant leaf VOCs and nanowire-based flexible sensors to monitor microclimate in parallel. The sensors will be prepared on a light-transparent, gas-permeable, and stretach substrate for long-term wearibility on live plants. In addition, a signal transmitter will be developed for wireless data acquistion and transmission. The system will be thourughly tested on tomato plants in the greenhouse for stress monitoring and disease detection.

Date: 09/01/18 - 8/31/24
Amount: $2,997,865.00
Funding Agencies: National Science Foundation (NSF)

Challenges at the FEW nexus are not simply technological, but convergent in the sense of spanning technical, ecological, social, political, and ethical issues. The field of biotechnology is evolving rapidly - and with it, the potential for creating a diverse array of powerful future products that could intentionally and unintentionally impact FEW systems. Depending on what products are developed and how those products are deployed, biotechnology could have a positive or negative impact on all 3 of these systems. Wise decisions will require leaders who can integrate knowledge from engineering, design, natural sciences, and social sciences. We will train STEM graduate students to respond to these challenges by conducting convergent research aimed at development, and assessment of biotechnologies to improve services provided by FEW systems. We will train our students to engage with non-scientists to elevate societal discourse about biotechnology. We will recruit 3 cohorts with emphasis on students who have shown a passion for crossing between natural and social sciences. We will work with the NCSU Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity in recruiting students from underrepresented minority groups. Cohorts will have 6 students who will take a minor in Genetic Engineering and Society (GES). They will receive PhDs in established graduate programs such as Plant Biol, Chem & Biomol Engr, Econ, Public Adm, Entomol, Plant Path, Communication, Rhetoric & Digital Media, Forestry & Environ Res, Crop & Soil Sci, and Genetics. For students in natural science PhD programs, at least 1 thesis committee member will be from a social sciences program and vice versa for students in social sciences. For all students, at least 1 thesis chapter will demonstrate scholarship across natural and social sciences. The disciplinary breadth of our proposed NRT is very broad, so we will focus student projects narrowly on a specific biotechnology product that impact FEW systems. When they first arrive at NCSU, cohorts will participate in a training program off campus where they will be exposed to the issues they will address. Students will carry out a group project in the focus area of the cohort to continue team development. To fulfill the GES minor, students will take 3 specially designed courses: Plant Genetics & Physiology, Science Communication & Engagement, Policy & Systems Modeling. There are no NRT-eligible institutions partnering on this project outside of an evaluation role.

Date: 07/01/23 - 6/30/24
Amount: $273,187.00
Funding Agencies: US Dept. of Agriculture - Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (USDA APHIS)

Project is in support of PSI. We have developed faster and more reliable in-field detection methods for plant pathogens that will greatly reduce plant disease by reducing time from occurrence to detection and thus time to mitigation. Two new innovations in sensor technology have been developed including a smart-phone field-compatible molecular assay that uses a loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP) sensor and a volatile-based sensor that will speed identification of plant pathogens in the field. In this project renewal, we will continue deploy and field test work a volatile organic compound (VOC) sensor and microneedle patch-supported LAMP sensors to differentiate two regulatory Phytophthora species of concern, P. ramorum and P. kernoviae. Phytophthora ramorum and P. kernoviae cause disease on nursery plants such as rhododendron, lilac and kalmia and important forestry tree species including oak and beech among others. Phytophthora kernoviae has not yet been found in the US. We will test the sensors in field tests and deploy them with inexpensive cartridges to run on a smartphone reader. We will also complete the modeling of historic late blight disease occurrence data using a near-real time mapping platform and the process based spatially explicit discrete time PoPS (Pest or Pathogen Spread) Forecasting Platform to develop predictive maps of pathogen risk of spread at regular intervals. The system will improve the response time of USDA APHIS PPQ and National Plant Diagnostic Network (NPDN) personnel to respond to emerging Phytophthora threats and improve economic return of growers as they use the digital diagnostic tools to prevent the spread of important Phytophthora diseases.

Date: 02/17/20 - 6/30/24
Amount: $556,250.00
Funding Agencies: Game-Changing Research Incentive Program for Plant Sciences (GRIP4PSI)

Emerging plant disease and pest outbreaks reduce food security, national security, human health, and the environment, with serious economic implications for North Carolina growers. These outbreaks may accelerate in coming decades due to shifts in the geographic distributions of pests, pathogens and vectors in response to climate change and commerce. Data-driven agbioscience tools can help growers solve pest and disease problems in the field more quickly but there is an urgent need to harness game-changing technologies. Computing devices are now embedded in our personal lives with sensors, wireless technology, and connectivity in the “Internet of Things” (IoT) but these technologies have yet to be scaled to agriculture. Our interdisciplinary team will build transformative sensor technology to identify plant pathogens, link local pathogen data and weather data, bioinformatics tools (pathogen genotypes), and use data driven analytics to map outbreaks, estimate pest and pathogen risk and economic damage, in order to coordinate response to emerging diseases, and contain threats. Sensor-supported early and accurate detection of pathogens before an outbreak becomes wide-spread in growing crops will significantly reduce pesticide use and increase crop yields.

Date: 08/01/22 - 1/31/24
Amount: $1,000,000.00
Funding Agencies: National Science Foundation (NSF)

Plant disease outbreaks are increasing and threaten food security for the vulnerable in many areas of the world and in the US. Climate change is exacerbating weather events that affect crop production and food access for vulnerable areas. Now a global human pandemic is threatening the health of millions on our planet. A stable, nutritious food supply will be needed to lift people out of poverty and improve health outcomes. Plant diseases, both endemic and recently emerging, are spreading and exacerbated by climate change, transmission with global food trade networks, pathogen spillover and evolution of new pathogen genetic lineages. Prediction of plant disease pandemics is unreliable due to the lack of real-time detection, surveillance and data analytics to inform decisions and prevent spread. In order to tackle these grand challenges, a new set of predictive tools are needed. In the PIPP Phase I project, our multidisciplinary team will develop a pandemic prediction system called “Plant Aid Database (PAdb)” that links pathogen transmission biology, disease detection by in-situ and remote sensing, genomics of emerging pathogen strains and real-time spatial and temporal data analytics and predictive simulations to prevent pandemics. We plan to validate the PAdb using several model pathogens including novel and host resistance breaking strains of lineages of two Phytophthora species, Phytophthora infestans and P. ramorum and the cucurbit downy mildew pathogen Pseudoperonspora cubensis Adoption of new technologies and mitigation interventions to stop pandemics require acceptance by society. In our work, we will also characterize how human attitudes and social behavior impact disease transmission and adoption of surveillance and sensor technologies by engaging a broad group of stakeholders including growers, extension specialist, the USDA APHIS, Department of Homeland Security and the National Plant Diagnostic Network in a Biosecurity Preparedness workshop. This convergence science team will develop tools that help mitigate future plant disease pandemics using predictive intelligence. The tools and data can help stakeholders prevent spread from initial source populations before pandemics occur and are broadly applicable to animal and human pandemic research.

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