Get to know Alan Phillips, Senior Researcher, Microbiology and Biotechnology Group
In this edition we interview Alan Phillips, one of the Highly Cited Researchers 2018. This list recognizes world-class researchers selected for their exceptional research performance, demonstrated by production of multiple highly cited papers that rank in the top 1% by citations for field and year in Web of Science.
Tell us a bit about your background and the main research areas you’ve worked on
Well, I started my life in Hong Kong and now I am a mycologist in the M&B Biotechnology Lab of BioISI. Since gaining my PhD from Wolverhampton University, England in 1980 I have worked as a research scientist in England, South Africa, Portugal and Thailand. For the first 12 years of my working life I worked on the epidemiology of sunflower, bean and pea diseases in South Africa. I then moved to Portugal where I turned my attention to systematic mycology working mainly on the Botryosphaeriaceae, a family of plant pathogens, saprobes and endophytes. Although Botryosphaeriaceae has been my main interest, I have also worked on the systematics of other genera of plant pathogenic fungi, notably Diaporthe and Plectosphaerella.
Presently I supervise four PhD students, one in Portugal, two in Algeria and one in Thailand. I have active collaborations with mycologists in Portugal, Italy, the Netherlands, Algeria, Czech Republic, Taiwan, China and Thailand. Apart from my research I am associate editor of four mycology journals, consultant to the Beijing Academy of Agricultural and Forest Sciences, visiting professor at Mae Fah Luang University in Northern Thailand, and have served two terms as President of the Mediterranean Phytopathology Union.
What research projects are you currently working on?
Before I say anything about my current projects I have to say a few words about why I study fungi. When most people think of fungi they think of plant pathogens, mouldy bread or mouldy patches on their bathroom ceilings. They are mostly unaware that fungi are one of the most important components of just about every terrestrial ecosystem, and play a major role in some aquatic ones. Fungi are the main decomposers that re-cycle nutrients and thus sustain the life of the ecosystem. Not only that but fungi have provided us with life-saving drugs and other useful by-products from their metabolism. Unfortunately, fungi have been understudied and we know so little about them. According to recent estimates we know only a tiny fraction of the probable total number of species that exist. The more we study fungi the more we see what they can do for us. An example is the genus Pesalotiopsis, which is now recognised as a huge, largely untapped source of biologically active metabolites, many of which are of pharmacological interest. One species can even decompose plastics. Yet others are emerging as foliar pathogens. I want to help search for the “missing” species, and that is the main thrust of our projects on fungal diversity.
I really enjoy working in the projects on fungal diversity of Northern Thailand and Southern China. The tropical climate and rich flora sustains an amazing diversity of fungi, many of which are new species and genera. One of these projects focuses on fungi on palm trees and continues to uncover taxonomic novelties. One of my students in Algeria is doing a similar study on date palms in the Sahara desert and considering the harsh, arid climate of the region he is finding a surprisingly diverse array of fungi. I have a Masters student who recently started a preliminary study of microfungi on palms in urban parks and gardens in Lisbon. It is early days yet but he is already finding a surprising number of different species, several of which are likely to be pathogens.
In collaboration with researchers in Beijing we are using a genomics approach to understand how virulence has evolved in certain species in genera where most species are saprobes or weak pathogens. In this work we concentrate on Botryosphaeriaceae.
Another project I am trying to get underway is on genetic diversity of Diplodia corticola on cork oak. This fungus is one of the factors contributing to decline of cork and other oaks in the Western Mediterranean region. So far I have a large collection of isolates from most countries and regions in the Western Mediterranean, now I have to get funds so that we can move this project forward.
Which living scientist/person do you most admire?
I can’t single out any one person in particular, even if I restrict my choice to mycologists. I admire those who have dedicated themselves to mycology and built large teams, even entire institutes. I also admire the ones who are working in difficult conditions and still manage to produce good science, albeit on a smaller scale. There are a lot of mycologists out there dedicating their lives to study fungi. The one that would that would gain by deepest admiration would be the one who can make mycology a science popular with the general public, with governments and with the organizations that distribute research funds. That person does not exist, but I predict that we will find him or her somewhere in East Asia.
What do you consider your greatest achievement in science?
I am proud of the system I developed in South Africa to predict outbreaks of white mould disease of beans and peas caused by Sclerotinia sclerotiorum. It is so simple to use and for irrigated crops grown during the dry season (like the high-value seed crops) the disease can be managed simply by regulating irrigation when the risk of disease becomes critical. But I consider my greatest achievement was to completely re-organize the genera and species in Botryosphaeriaceae within a modern taxonomic framework. When I first started to work on this family it was in a state of utter confusion with multiple names attached to single species, genera comprising species from more than one genus and it was almost impossible to apply species names with any confidence. The monograph I published in 2013 still stands as the definitive text on the family and it is now easy to distinguish and identify the species. More importantly, as a direct result of this work it is now clear that several species in the family are amongst the most damaging species causing trunk diseases in grapevines worldwide, and cankers and dieback in other woody hosts, such as oaks (including cork oak) and fruit trees.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Without a doubt I far too frequently say, “Yes, I will do it” or something similar. I must learn to say “No” more often.
Tell us one odd/peculiar thing about yourself.
Nothing. Presumably some people may find something odd about me, but I consider myself quite normal.