Ph.D. (Plant Pathology), The University of Arizona, 2007
B.S. (Biology), University of Costa Rica, 2000
Areas of Interest
Molecular Biology and Genomics of Pathogenic Fungi in Cereals
Agricultural production is essential to eradicate hunger, malnutrition and respond to the nutritional demands generated by global population growth. The overarching goal of my research program is to advance our understanding of the molecular and genetic basis of plant disease. Such fundamental knowledge will aid the development of sustainable strategies to minimize losses in food production due to plant disease.
My research efforts are directed towards elucidating mechanisms of pathogenicity of fungi that pose a threat to important crops such as wheat, barley, and oat. I am primarily interested in the discovery of virulence mechanisms, fungal effectors and learning about the strategies employed by these pathogens to colonize the plant. Currently, I am mostly focused on rust fungi, mainly Puccinia graminis, the causal agent of stem rust and Puccinia coronata which is responsible for crown rust.
Rust fungi display an extraordinary evolutionary capacity for host adaptation. Thus, my research program investigates the molecular mechanisms driving the evolution of virulence. To deliver innovative solutions to ensure food security I seek to integrate information about the biology of pathogens and plant resistance, particularly non-host resistance in Brachypodium distachyon and other types of resistance available in wild relatives of cereals. For instance, we are working to identify crown rust resistance loci in relatives of Avena sativa to transfer novel resistance genes to cultivated oat.
We employ a diverse array of approaches to achieve these goals, for instance we use comparative genomics and transcriptomics, imaging technologies, biochemistry, genetics, as well as other techniques in molecular biology to guide functional analyses of genes in fungi and plants.
I have a strong commitment to teaching and mentoring, and hope that my leadership in an interdisciplinary research program will provide students with academic opportunities to learn about the role of molecular biology and genetics in agriculture.
Melania Figueroa was awarded the 2018 Syngenta Award from the American Phytopathological Society (APS). This award is given by Syngenta Crop Protection to an APS member for an outstanding recent contribution to teaching, research, or extension in plant pathology. Read more >>
In the race to prevent and control rust disease epidemics, scientists have positioned themselves to better understand how rust fungi infect crops and evolve virulence. Learn more about this recently published research in mBio, a journal by the American Society for Microbiology. Read more >>
For the first time ever, scientists are gaining ground in the race against wheat stem rust, a pathogen that threatens global food security because of its ability to kill wheat. A team of researchers from the University of Sydney, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Rothamsted Research, the University of Minnesota and USDA have discovered the first rust virulence molecule that wheat plants detect to ‘switch on’ built-in resistance and stave off the disease. Read more >>
Plant Pathology Assistant Professor Melania Figueroa and co-investigators Cory Hirsch, Plant Pathology Assistant Professor, and Chad Myers, Computer Science and Engineering Associate Professor, were awarded the Microbial and Plant Genome Institute (MPGI) 2016 Seed Grant for their project proposal entitled “Identification of gene networks to understand stem rust susceptibility in wheat.”
Plant Pathology Assistant Professor Melania Figueroa was recently awarded a fellowship from the Cooperative Research Programme: Biological Resource Management for Sustainable Agricultural Systems” at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). This fellowship will allow Figueroa to spend ten weeks working on her research project "Uncovering the genetic basis of virulence in Puccinia coronata via an intercontinental comparative genomics approach" at Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) in Canberra, Australia. Read more >>