New faculty profile: Aurelie Rakotondrafara

Aurelie Rakotondrafara joined the faculty as an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Pathology in June 2011.

Briefly describe your career path—up to this point.
My life has had so many amazing and unexpected turns. I could describe it as hanging tightly to a rope and just going for the ride. For me, the ride has been about the thirst and curiosity for knowledge, which I hope to never lose.

After I received my Bachelor degree in Microbiology-Biotechnology at the University of Madagascar, I applied for and was granted a Fulbright fellowship to start a Master’s degree in the plant pathology department at Iowa State University in Ames, IA in the fall of 1999. At that time, I was not even sure what plant pathology was about! Who would have thought that an entire department was dedicated to curing sick plants? Soon the fear transformed into fascination! I joined the lab of Dr. Allen W. Miller to work on the regulation of gene expression of Barley yellow dwarf virus (BYDV), one of the most economically important pathogens of small grains. After graduating with my M.S. in plant pathology, I decided to continue my education and majored in molecular & cellular developmental biology for my Ph.D.

By then my research project had evolved to focus on the mechanistic details of viral translation. To compete with host mRNAs, BYDV evolved a unique strategy for expressing its protein. It relies on a long-distance interaction of the 5’ and 3‘ end of its mRNA mediated by what we refer to as “kissing loops.” If the “kiss” did not occur, then the virus just failed to infect. (I knew that those viruses had some sense of romanticism and fatalism in them!) By understanding how a virus hijacks a cell’s protein synthesis machinery, it was our hope that one could foresee a target for resistance.

Next I received a postdoctoral EMBO long-term fellowship and moved to Heidelberg, Germany in August 2007 to join the lab of Matthias Hentze, one of the icons in the field of gene expression regulation mechanisms. I left the US, plants and viruses, and moved into the complex world of the human cell and the regulation of oncogenic mRNA translation. In 2009, I received the European Marie Curie postdoctoral fellowship. The postdoctoral training was a steep learning curve, and I realized that I missed viruses and knew that one day I would go back to that field.

In June 2011, I officially joined the Department of Plant Pathology at UW-Madison. We all have a gift, and mine is to share my knowledge. I am excited to be a part of the department and perpetuate the excellence of research and teaching done here.

What is the main focus of your research program?
To complete translation, replication and movement through cells, a virus relies mostly on the interactions of its genome and encoded-proteins with host factors. Knockouts of specific factors or even subtle changes in their properties can trigger a lack of compatibility in plant-virus interactions and failure of the virus to infect its host. Natural recessive resistance against plant viruses often involves mutations within the host translation initiation factors, which are not detrimental to the host. To understand how these mutations act as resistance genes, it is imperative to know how RNA viruses are translated and what the key regulatory elements in the viral RNAs are. That’s what my lab works on.

What drew you to UW-Madison?
For me, the question is: What brought me to join the University of Wisconsin-Madison? Serendipity!