Melons, cucumbers, tomatoes, and peas...Abdelhafid Bendahmane has studied them all. Audaciously combining genomics and post-genomics, he has successfully and strategically bridged the gap between sex determination and variety breeding in plants. For his daring, he has received INRA's 2018 Scientific Breakthrough Award.
Abdelhafid Bendahmane is a research director at the Paris Saclay Institute of Plant Sciences (IPS2-CNRS/INRA/Université Evry-Val d'Essonne/Université Paris-Diderot/Université Paris-Sud), which is part of INRA Île-de-France – Versailles-Grignon. His laboratory is half extraordinary garden and half Giuseppe Arcimboldo painting. In this universe filled with plants of agricultural interest, experienced researchers work with tomorrow's young sprouts, and state-of-the-art techniques are used to perform cutting-edge science. It is here that Bendahmane has built his international reputation in plant genomics and breeding. We spoke with him - a risk-taking researcher who has brilliantly combined fundamental and applied research who is also the recipient of INRA's 2018 Scientific Breakthrough Award.
It is with cheerful enthusiasm that he described his career path. He spent the first few years of his academic life studying plant-pathogen interactions in various European laboratories. In 1999, he was hired by INRA and began working in the newly created Plant Genomics Research Unit (now a part of IPS2), which was headed by Michel Caboche, whom Bendahmane describes as "a visionary who influenced all French plant genomics research.” There, Bendahmane focused on projects where the results of fundamental research could be translated into daily life.
Daring to think differently
Rather quickly, Bendahmane turned his attention to plants of agricultural interest and the related genetic resources that INRA had created. His goal was to increase their value. With the full support of his supervisors, he relentlessly pursued his objectives. He created a functional genomics platform dedicated to genomic analyses, worked with his colleagues to choose genes of agronomic interest, and established numerous collaborations that allowed him to clone and identify these genes.
Genomics research in full swing, he went a step further and tackled the subject of post-genomics. He took a bet and decided to focus on a major bottleneck that he perceived in plant biology: the slow validation rate of genomic discoveries in plants. Via broad-scale projects, Bendahmane created large collections of mutants. More than 500 genes of agronomic interest were analysed, and thousands of alleles were identified and phenotyped. Several of these latter were made available to the private sector and research laboratories in France and across the world.
Over time, this audacious approach nourished the research team's success: more than 20 genes of agricultural interest were cloned and identified, including genes involved in disease resistance or plant development. The result - over 80 publications and 8 patents.
Gourded into a new research path
Exchanges with Michel Pitrat and Catherine Dogimont (INRA Provence-Alpes Côte d’Azur) led Bendahmane to explore new research paths. As a result, he and his team cloned sex-determination genes in the melon and found evidence for an undescribed underlying mechanism in the Cucurbitaceae family. This discovery meant it was now theoretically possible to generate greater numbers of female plants (i.e., the fruit producers) and thus increase yields. Plant variety breeding efforts benefited from this essential work. It also bolstered the reputation of Bendahmane and his team in the field of plant sex determination and flower development. Indeed, in 2013, they received a European Research Council grant to carry out further research.
They will continue with this line of investigation, with the goal of transferring what they learn from European cucurbits to commonly consumed Asian species (e.g., the bottle gourd, the pointed gourd) that have not yet benefited from modern breeding techniques.
This year, INRA's Scientific Breakthrough Award goes to Bendahmane, who has been described as "clearly one of the most creative researchers in the plant sciences”; he has received the prize with his characteristic modesty. The award committee wishes to highlight his exceptional scientific abilities, his desire to transform scientific discoveries into agricultural innovations, and his capacity for forming research and socioeconomic partnerships. He has dedicated the award to his research team, to all those who participated in the adventure over the years, and to all those who will continue along the path. He also wishes to thank those who believed in him and who joined him in his dares.
Laurier Défi scientifique 2018 : Abdelhafid BENDAHMANE version anglaise
The original version of this article was published on INRA's website.
Laurier Défi scientifique 2018 : Abdelhafid BENDAHMANE