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Larissa Osterbaan: unraveling the genetic mysteries of grapevine disease

Student inspects grape leaves for disease

Larissa Osterbaan is a sixth year doctoral student in the School of Integrative Plant Science studying under the guidance of professor Marc Fuchs at Cornell AgriTech. We spoke to her about her discoveries on grapevine fanleaf virus (GFLV) and the potential impact of her research on the wine and grape industry.

What is your research focus area?

My research focuses on a virus of grapevines called grapevine fanleaf virus (GFLV). Specifically, I am studying how GFLV interacts with its hosts in order to cause symptoms. The GFLV genome codes for just eight proteins, yet it can infiltrate and kill a whole grapevine. The goal of my research is to identify ways in which those eight proteins interact with parts of the host's cells and figure out how those interactions lead to disease.

What is your most valuable research discovery?

The most important aspect of my research has been narrowing down the cause of symptoms in a model plant species to a single point on one of the GFLV proteins. We can essentially turn symptoms on and off by changing that one point. But that's just the start. I honestly think our most exciting results are just around the corner. I am in the middle of a project that will finally let us see what that one GFLV protein is interacting with in the plant. Once we know the contact points between the virus and its hosts, we can look into modifying those contacts to try to prevent disease.

What do you hope your research will accomplish for New York state agriculture?

While GFLV is not a large threat to the New York state grape industry, building this type of knowledge-base makes us better prepared to face future threats. We are developing scientific techniques that are more powerful and yield more data than anything available to earlier scientists. It is my hope that we will be able to apply these techniques to other viruses which threaten the New York state grape industry.

What has been your most memorable experience as a student at Cornell AgriTech?

The entire process of the Student Association of the Geneva Experiment Station (S.A.G.E.S.) apple cider fundraiser is definitely something that will stick with me after grad school. In my years at Cornell AgriTech, I've been able to participate in every stage of that fundraiser: from coordinating volunteers, to harvesting apples, to pressing and bottling the cider, to being on the scholarship selection committee. One year, I even got to go to a local high school senior awards night to present one of the scholarships. It has all been joyful and fulfilling work. And it emblemizes something of the Cornell AgriTech mentality that can be easy to identify but hard to articulate. It’s this cultural undercurrent of teamwork and of finding ways to benefit the wider community. It's hard to put into words, but it’s there and it’s what makes being a student at Cornell AgriTech so fulfilling.

Photo: Larissa Osterbaan inspects grape leaves for disease at a greenhouse at Cornell AgriTech. Photo by Justin James Muir.