Department of Biology & Biochemistry


4 South 1.53


Tel: +44 (0) 1225 383051 


Research Profiles

Richard M Cooper

Microbial pathogenicity and host defences


  • PhD 1974 Imperial College, University of London
  • Currently Reader in Plant-Microorganism Interactions
  • Lecturer 1974; Senior Lecturer, 1986 University of Bath
  • Postdoctoral Research at University of Missouri Colombia USA 1981
  • Huxley Memorial Medal for Research in Natural Sciences, Royal College of Science 1984
  • Leverhulme Research Professor, University of West Indies 1995
  • President, British Society for Plant Pathology 2007


Current Research

My research investigates the processes involved in diseases caused by microorganisms (essentially attack and defence) and where possible, how this knowledge can be applied to disease control. Plant diseases often result in c. 20-25% yield losses worldwide. More durable and sustainable solutions than those in current use are required to address the issue of global food security. Currently more than 1 billion people are undernourished.

For in depth analysis of mechanisms we use model species such as Arabidopsis and tomato, but I also research more applied aspects, such as epidemiology, detection and resistance screening of certain tropical crop species of world importance. These have included: cassava, the world’s sixth most important crop from which its starch-filled roots provide a staple to 700 million in the tropics; oil palm is not only fundamental at village level, but provides c. one third of the world’s vegetable oil and is used in biofuels; cocoa provides a world commodity but is crucial to local economies in countries such as Ivory Coast, Ghana and Brazil.

Main themes:

Innate Immunity-how hosts recognize pathogens. Microbial pathogens release, inadvertently, conserved oligomeric and polymeric molecules which elicit host defences. These are known as MAMPs (Microbial Associated Molecular Patterns) and include glucans and chitin from fungi, flagellin and lipopolysaccharide (LPS) from bacteria. MAMPs are recognized by PRR receptors, trigger calcium ion influx, signalling pathways and subsequently myriad defences (see figure). We were the first to show bacterial peptidoglycan (PGN) is recognized by plant cells. We showed that cells recognize simultaneously multiple MAMPs to avoid pathogen camouflage. We demonstrated how large MAMPs (PGN, LPS) need first to be degraded to pass through the plant cell wall matrix. Current work also involves insect perception of MAMPs (joint with N. Waterfield, see his web page).

Microbial Pathogenicity-suppression of host innate immunity. Pathogens have evolved arsenals of suppressive molecules in order to counteract MAMP-induced defences, such as type III secreted protein effectors, toxins acting as hormone mimics and extracellular polysaccharides (EPS). Bacterial EPS are produced during infection and required for full virulence. They are hygroscopic, polyanionic, ion-chelating macromolecules with several likely essential functions. Other than protection from UV, desiccation and antimicrobials, we revealed that chelation of calcium ions by EPS of diverse bacterial pathogens, prevents calcium influx in plants to the cytosol from the apoplast. As this influx is a prerequisite for triggering defence signalling, defences are suppressed in this way (see figure). Pathogens of plants must degrade numerous complex physical barriers. Enzymes degrading host cell wall polymers are involved in most diseases. Pathogens with dicot hosts often rely on degradation of the pectic matrix. Pathogens of cereals such as Septoria nodorum on wheat use different key enzymes, proteases and (arabino)xylanases, reflecting the different monocot wall structure.
Xylem-invading pathogens such as Verticillium, Fusarium and Xanthomonas remain an ongoing interest in terms of virulence and host resistance.

Disease resistance. For many crop species resistant genotypes afford the only practicable means of disease control. We have investigated defences of cassava to Xanthomonas bacterial blight, a major pathogen in many countries. Defence components include preformed structures such as stomates, and latex with its many antimicrobial proteins and induced, defence-related genes. Altered defence gene transcription was revealed by cDNA-AFLP techniques. Resistance studies with other tropical species include currently oil palm to Fusarium and Ganoderma. Resistance of Theobroma cacao to Verticillium, a vascular pathogen, is linked to induction of four, novel, natural 'fungicides' (phytoalexins) including elemental sulphur (see figure). It was unexpected and very rare to find sulphur (man's oldest pesticide!) in a higher eukaryote, but it has since been detected in xylem of resistant lines of some other species such as tomato, tobacco and cotton infected with vascular pathogens.
In terms of direct applications, we have developed or improved methods of testing for disease resistance lines to these major pathogens. We have developed and released a means of eradicating Fusarium from oil palm seed. We are currently developing DNA probes for rapid and specific detection of Fusarium for use in seed quarantine. We have shown how Ganoderma infects palms and our genetic studies show the importance of spores in its spread.


Fungitoxic sulphur (S) is induced in xylem of disease resistant tomato stems; SEM EDX analysis shows it is localised in areas contacted by the vascular pathogenic Verticillium.

arabidopsis plant
Fig 1.

xanthan vs flg figure
Fig 2.

xanthan to suppress flg figure
Fig 3.

Fig 1.  Arabidopsis plant (aerial view) transformed with jellyfish protein apo-aquorein allows detection of calcium ion influx-a prelude to defence induction; false colours show calcium levels, with red high. Fig 2. Bacterial EPS (xanthan from Xanthomonas) largely suppresses (arrow) the very rapid calcium influx induced by the bacterial MAMP flagellin. Fig 3. Xanthan at 2.5 mg/ml suppresses flagellin induction of toxic oxygen by 90% (arrow). More than x10 this level of EPS is produced during infection.

Lab members

Current lab members: Hefni Rusli, Sarah Turner, Aswad Wasab

Some previous lab members and destinations: Rob Jackson (Lecturer in microbiology, Reading); Robert Rees (Commercial-clinical trials); Shazia Aslam (post doctoral RO, Essex); Ray St Leger (Professor of Entomology, University of Maryland, USA) Matt Amos (post doctoral RO Swansea), J. Flood (Global Director-Commodities, CABI UK); Nelum Deshapriya (Lecturer, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka); Ben Kemp (Research Fellow, Warwick); David Dymock (Bristol Dental School), R. Gomez (Teacher); Jane Williams (Commercial-Bacteriologist); Laurence Bindschedler (Reading Biocentre); Josie Williams (Commercial-Toxicity Research); Amanda Carlile (Patent Attorney); David Youle (Head of Biology & Logistics, Syngenta),Sharon Hall (Research Scientist, Warwick); Nazan Dagustu (Lecturer, Uludag University, Bursa, Turkey); Ian Paterson (Senior Lecturer Bristol Dental School);Jon Milner (CEO Abcam; CEO of the year 2010 European MediScience Award).

fungal genetics and biology journal

plant pathology journal

applied and environmental mircobiology journal

Selected publications

  • REES, R. W., Flood, J., Hasan, Y., Cooper, R. M. (2012). Ganoderma boninense basidiospores in oil palm plantations: evaluation of their possible role in stem rots of oil palm (Elaeis guineensis). Plant Pathology (in press).
  • COOPER, RM. (2011) Fusarium oxysporum wilt of oil palm: seed contamination, intercontinental spread and the development of eradication and rapid detection for seed quarantine. 2011. Management of Plant Diseases - Technological innovations in seed health.  Brasília-DF: Sociedade Brasileira de Fitopatologia. ISSN. (in press).
  • COOPER, RM. (2011) I Fusarium wilt of oil palm: a continuing threat to the Malaysian oil palm industry. II. Ganoderma boninense in oil palm plantations: current thinking on epidemiology, resistance and pathology. The Planter 87, 409-418; 515-526.
  • AMOS, M. R., Sanchez-Contreras, M., Jackson, R. W., Muñoz-Berbel, X., Ciche, T. A., Cooper, R. M., Waterfield, N. R. (2011). Influence of the Photorhabdus luminescens phosphomannose isomerase gene, manA, on mannose utilization, exopolysaccharide structure,and biofilm formation. Applied Environmental Microbiology 77, 776-785.
  • Cooper, R. M. (2010) Microbial MAMPs: their detection and suppression. In: Induced Resistance in Plants: New Concepts and Applications. Brasília-DF: Sociedade Brasileira de Fitopatologia, p. 99-116. ISSN: 2175-9286
  • Rees, R.W., Flood, J., Hasan, Y., Potter, U, and Cooper, R.M. (2009). Basal stem rot of oil palm (Elaeis guineensis); mode of root infection and lower stem invasion by Ganoderma boninense. Plant Pathology 58, 982-989.
  • Aslam, S., Erbs, G., Morrissey, K. L., Newman, M-A., Chinchilla, D., Boller, T., Molinaro, A., Jackson, R. W., Cooper, R. M. (2009). MAMPs signatures, synergy, size and charge: their influences on perception or mobility and host defence responses. Molecular Plant Pathology 10, 375-387.
  • Aslam, S., Newman, M-A, Erbs, G., Morrissey, K. L., Chinchilla, D., Boller, T., Tandrup Jensen, T., De Castro, C., Ierano, T., Molinaro, A., Jackson, R. W., Knight, M. C., Cooper, R. M. (2008) Bacterial polysaccharides suppress induced innate immunity by calcium chelation. Current Biology 18, 1078-1083.
  • Dow, M., Molinaro, A., Cooper, R. M., Newman, M-A. (2008). Microbial glycosylated components in plant disease. In Microbial Glycobiology: Structures, Relevance and Application. Eds. A. Moran, P. Brennan, O. Holst, M von Itszstein. pp 803-820 Elsevier.
  • Erbs, G., Silipo, A., Aslam, S., De Castro, C., Liparoti, V., Flagiello, A., Pucci, P., Lanzetta, R., Parrilli, M., Molinaro, A., Newman, M.-A., Cooper, R. M., (2008). Peptidoglycan and muropeptides from pathogens Agrobacterium and Xanthomonas elicit plant innate immunity: structure and activity Chemistry & Biology 15, 438-448.
  • Erthal, M., Silva, C. P., Cooper, R. M. , Samuels, R. I. (2008). Hydrolytic enzymes of leaf cutting ant fungi. Comparative Biochemistry & Physiology Part B. Biochem. Mol. Biol. 152, 54-59
  • Ferrieres, L., Aslam, S. N., Cooper, R. M., Clarke, D. J. (2007). The yjbEFGH locus in Escherichia coli K-12 is an operon encoding proteins involved in exopolysaccharide production. Microbiology 153, 1070-1080.
  • Rees, R. W., Flood, J., Hasan, Y., Cooper, R. M. (2007). Effect of inoculum potential, shading and soil temperature on root infection of oil palm seedlings by the basal stem rot pathogen Ganoderma boninense. Plant Pathology 56, 862-870.
  • Matthijs, S., Abbaspour, T., Laus, G., Jackson, R. J., Cooper, R. M., Cornelis, P. (2006). Thioquinolobactin,a Pseudomonas siderophore with antifungal and anti-Pythium activity. Environmental Microbiology 9, 425-434.
  • Solomon, P. S., Ormonde D.C. Waters, Joanne Simmonds, J., Cooper, R. M., Oliver, R. P. (2005). The Mak2 MAP kinase signal transduction pathway is required for pathogenicity in Stagonospora nodorum. Current Genetics. 48, 60-68.
  • Kemp, B.P, Beeching, J. R., Cooper, RM. (2005). cDNA-AFLP reveals genes differentially expressed during the hypersensitive response of cassava. Molecular Plant Patholology 6, 113-123.
  • Kemp, B. P., Horne, J., Bryant, A., Cooper, R. M. (2004). Xanthomonas axonopodis gumD gene is essential for EPS production and pathogenicity and enhances epiphytic survival on cassava (Manihot esculenta). Physiological Molecular Plant Pathology 64, 209-218.
  • Cooper, R. M. Williams, J. S. (2004). Elemental sulphur as an induced antifungal substance in plant defence. Journal of Experimental Botany 55, 1947-1953.
  • Williams, J. S., Cooper, R. M. (2004). The oldest fungicide and newest phytoalexin-a reappraisal of the fungitoxicity of elemental sulphur. Plant Pathology 53, 263-279.
  • Solomon, P., Tan, K-C, Sanchez, P., Cooper, R. M., Oliver, R. P. (2004) The disruption of a Ga subunit sheds new light on the pathogenicity of Stagonospora nodorum on wheat. Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions 17, 456-466.
  • Gomez, R., Day, R., Buschmann, H., Randles, S., Beeching, J. R., Cooper, R. M. (2004). Phenylpropanoids, phenylalanine ammonia lyase and peroxidase in elicitor-challenged cassava (Manihot esculenta) suspension cells and leaves. Annals of Botany 94, 87-97.
  • Williams, J. S., Cooper, R. M. (2003). Elemental sulphur is produced by diverse families as a component of defence against fungal and bacterial pathogens. Physiological Molecular Plant Pathology 63, 3-16.
  • Williams, J., Clarkson, J.M., Mills, P.R., Cooper, R.M. (2003). Saprotrophic and mycoparasitic components of aggressiveness of Trichoderma harzianum groups towards the commercial mushroom Agaricus bisporus. Applied and Environmental Microbiology, 69, 4192-4199.
  • Bindschedler, L.V., Sanchez, P., Dunn, S., Mikan, J., Thangavelu, M., Clarkson, J.M., Cooper, R.M. (2002) Deletion of the SNP1 trypsin protease from Stagonospora nodorum reveals another major protease expressed during infection. Fungal Genetics and Biology, 38, 43-53.
  • Williams, J., Hall, S.A., Hawkesford, M.J., Beale, M.H.,Cooper, R.M. (2002) Elemental sulfur and thiol accumulation in tomato and defense against a fungal vascular pathogen. Plant Physiology, 128, 150-159
  • Cooper, R.M. (2000) Verticillium-host interactions: past achievements and future molecular prospects. In Advances in Verticillium, ed by EC Tjamos et al. pp 144-150 American Phytopathological Press
  • Carlile, A.J., Bindschedler, L.V., Bailey, A.M., Bowyer, P, Clarkson, J.M., Cooper, R.M. (2000) Characterization of SNP1, a cell wall-degrading trypsin, produced during infection by Stagonospora nodorum. Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions 13, 538-550.
  • Cooper R.M., Resende MLV, Flood J, Rowan J., Beale M.H, Potter U. (1996) Detection and cellular localization of elemental sulphur in disease resistant genotypes of Theobroma cacao. Nature, 379, 159-162
  • Mepsted R, Flood J, Paul T, Airede C & Cooper R.M. (1995) A model system for rapid selection for resistance and investigation of resistance mechanisms in Fusarium of oil palm. Plant Pathology, 44, 749-75