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Europe lends its support to the ii-MAX project on virulence mechanisms of pathogenic fungi in cereals

As part of the Horizon 2020 Framework Programme for Research and Innovation, the European Research Council (ERC) has awarded grants to more than 400 young researchers to conduct their research projects. ERC Starting Grants are intended to enable these young scientists to put together their own teams to carry out ambitious and novel research. Stella Césari, a researcher at the Joint Research Unit for Biology and Genetics of Plant-Pathogen Interactions (BGPI) at INRA’s Occitanie-Montpellier centre, will receive a Starting Grant for her ii-MAX project.

Stella Césari receives a 2019 ERC Starting Grant. © INRA, Stella Césari
Updated on 09/06/2019
Published on 09/03/2019

ERC Starting Grants to bolster ambitious projects

The European Research Council announced on 3 September 2019 that it would award grants to 408 young researchers following this year’s ERC call for proposals. ERC Starting Grants are open to young scientists conducting research in a European institution within two to seven years after obtaining their PhD and regardless of nationality.

The purpose of the Starting Grant is to enable young researchers from all disciplines to form their own teams and conduct innovative research on ambitious and daring topics. The grants, totalling €603 million, are part of the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.

Stella Césari, a young researcher at INRA’s Joint Research Unit for Biology and Genetics of Plant-Pathogen Interactions (BGPI), will receive an ERC Starting Grant for her ii-MAX research project to examine the host cellular processes of the Magnaporthe oryzae fungus, which infects rice. She and her team will explore new plant immunity mechanisms in order to create new varieties with durable resistance to fungal diseases.

Studying pathogenic fungi for more resistant crops

Cereals are a staple food and are crucial to feeding the world’s expanding population. To meet the needs of this demographic growth and address the risks engendered by global change, cereal yields must rise through sustainable farming practices. Fungal pathogens such as M. oryzae, which causes rice blast, are a major threat to cereal production.

The ii-MAX project aims to produce new knowledge on fungal virulence and plant immunity. This knowledge will be extremely valuable in developing varieties with durable resistance to rice blast, a disease that affects not only rice but wheat and barley as well.

The crucial role of MAX effectors in plant infections

When plants become infected, the pathogens deploy molecular weapons called effectors that target the host cellular processes to help the infection take hold. Scientists have recently discovered a large and diverse family of effectors in M. oryzae: the MAX effector family (Magnaporthe avirulence and ToxB-like). Remarkably, the MAX effectors are structurally conserved but protein sequence-unrelated. The MAX effector family is specific to ascomycete fungi but has spread massively in M. oryzae, suggesting that it plays a vital role in the infectious process. However, the targets of MAX effectors in plants are largely unknown.

The goal of Stella Césari’s research project is to identify the host proteins targeted by the MAX effectors in M. oryzae and to conduct a thorough study of the biophysical and functional interactions between these effectors and their targets in rice. New strategies could then be developed to enhance durable resistance, namely by modifying sensitive proteins in host plants.

Scientific contact(s):

  • Stella CESARI UMR0385 UMR0385 BGPI Joint Research Unit for Biology and Genetics of Plant-Pathogen Interactions, Occitanie-Montpellier Research Centre

find out more

Stella Césari: ‘budding’ scientist recognised for her work in plant science

Open to the world: 51 nationalities among winners of 2019 ERC Starting Grants (European Research Council - ERC)


  • Since 2018: Research Scientist at the UMR BGPI, INRA, Montpellier (France)
  • 2017: New Phytologist Tansley Medal for Excellence in Plant Science
  • 2016-2018: Postdoc at the UMR BGPI, INRA, Montpellier (France)
  • 2014-2016: Postdoc at CSIRO, Canberra (Australia)
  • 2013-2014: Postdoc, INRA Young Scientist Contract, at CSIRO, Canberra (Australia)
  • 2009-2012: PhD at the UMR BGPI, INRA, Montpellier (France)
  • 2009: Master’s in Functional Plant Biology, Faculty of Sciences, University of Montpellier
  • 2007: Bachelor’s in Functional Plant Biology, Faculty of Sciences, University of Montpellier