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RESEARCH TOPICS FOR XXXIX CYCLE – Main selection procedure for four positions with grant

1) Title of the Research Topic: Identification and characterisation of the microbial communities from pear orchards and their role against fungal pathogens of pear

1 (one) position with grant

Scientific Tutor: Prof. Emilio Stefani - co-Tutor: Dr. Davide Giovanardi

Research topic: The Regione Emilia Romagna is the main area of Italy where pears are grown, and one of the most important in Europe. Recently, several outbreaks of the brown spot disease (Stemphylium vesicarium) are causing enormous losses, both in pre- and in post-harvest. Some aspects of the disease epidemiology are still unknown, e.g. if the role of specific microbial communities may have a role in alleviating disease severity. Currently, fungicides are extensively applied to control the brown rot and other similar diseases: this is reflected in the finding of pesticide residues above the maximum residue level (MRL), thus raising a concern by the consumers’ associations on the safety of fruits. Knowledge and use of those beneficial microbes naturally present in pear orchards as epiphytes may support food safety and environmental protection, thus increasing the sustainability of the most important fruit crop of Emilia Romagna.

Objectives of the PhD project will be:

Monitor pear orchards in the provinces of Modena, Bologna and Ravenna and collect a large numbers of bacteria and yeasts.

Characterise the microbiota through a metagenomic approach and relate them to different areas and different management (integrated vs. organic)

Select and identify possible antagonists to the main phytopathogenic fungus affecting the crop (Stemphylium vesicarium).

Unravel and characterize the molecular interactions between Stemphylium vesicarium and at least two antagonists (one bacterium and one yeast). The PhD student is required to spend a period abroad of at least six months.


2) Title of the Research Topic: Increase hoverfly (Diptera: Syrphidae) functional biodiversity to improve ecological services in agroecosystems

1 (one) position with grant

Scientific Tutor: Prof. Lara Maistrello

Research topic: Hoverflies (Diptera, Syrphidae) play a key role in several important ecological services in agroecosystems, especially biological pest control and pollination. Remnants of natural habitats are important for preserving and maintaining the population of hoverflies, due to the highly diverse ecological demands mainly of the larvae. Therefore, the improvement of functional biodiversity can be both a conservation and a productive goal that should be achieved. The aim of the research will be to evaluate the effect of natural habitats on the population of hoverflies in agroecosystems located at different distances from natural areas.

The natural areas of the Po Valley mainly in the provinces of Modena and Reggio Emilia will be considered as local biodiversity hot-spots. The hoverfly population will be evaluated in the hot-spots and in differently managed agroecosystems located at different distances from the natural areas. Both short (a few hundred meters) and long distances (more than 2 km) will be considered. The hoverflies population and the related ecological services (biological control and pollination) will be evaluated both with traditional monitoring techniques (observational transects, pan traps) and with more recent sampling methods (e.g. larvae sampling, IOT sensors). In addition, to evaluate the spillover of hoverflies from natural habitats to rural landscapes, the movement of species belonging to different ecological categories will be studied using specific chemical and physical techniques.

The PhD candidate will follow the project improving the knowledge of basic and traditional skills (from sampling to taxonomy), but, at the same time, she/he will approach new sampling and evaluation techniques. This project will also be an opportunity for the validation of sampling systems that exploit modern technologies (e.g. IOT sensoring), implementing the cooperation with other departments and/or with external companies. The PhD student is required to spend a period abroad of 6 months.

Crucial to develop this project is a certified knowledge and good experience in the use of software for statistical data processing (possibly “R” software).


3) Title of the Research Topic: Alternative methods to the use of synthetic products: effects on the production and physiology of industrial tomato, on the quality of the fruit and on non-target organisms

1 (one) position with grant

Scientific Tutor: Prof. Nicola Pecchioni

Research topic: Alternative methods to the use of agrochemicals, fertilizers and other means of production obtained by synthesis, or of fossil origin, for the control of phytopathogens, for the fertilization and management of industrial tomatoes are becoming diffused also in Italy. For example, for biofumigation and solarization to control fungal pathogens, or as biostimulants to increase fruit setting and fruiting. For this reason, it is important to evaluate the real effects on the crop and on non-target organisms, in soil and agro-ecosystem. In support and complement of agronomic replicated trials, and of the related yield-related and agronomic data, the objective of this PhD proposal is to broaden the study of such strategies with the physiological, molecular and biochemical evaluation of plant responses and markers associated with the induction of resistance, plant vigor and the quality of the fruit. Selected ecosystem-level effects on non-target organisms and microorganisms will also be evaluated. The analyses carried out will allow a complete characterization of the effects of the proposed treatments on the development of the plant also in relation to its environment of cultivation (genotype x environment, GxE and genotype x environment x management, GxMxE), in order to propose an evaluation model that can be extended to other cropping systems and possibly validated at farm level. A period of stay abroad of at least 6 months is required, possibly at the University of Wageningen (The Netherlands).


4) Title of the Research Topic: Molecular mechanisms of the protective effect of phenolic compounds and their metabolites on human health

1 (one) position with grant

Scientific Tutor: Prof. Angela Conte - co-Tutor: Prof. Davide Tagliazucchi

Research topic: Various epidemiological and prospective observational studies have suggested that diets rich in phenolic compounds and vegetable foods (including the Mediterranean Diet) may be protective against the onset of chronic diseases such as cardio-vascular diseases and cancer. However, the exact mechanism of action of phenolic compounds and the real molecules responsible for this effect is still a matter of debate. Since phenolic compounds are thoroughly modified by colonic microbiota and endogenous enzymes is quite improbable that the compounds present in the food (i.e. the parent phenolic compounds) are responsible for the observed protective effects. Therefore, the objectives of the research activity will focus on the study of the molecular mechanisms at the basis of the health effect of phenolic compounds with a focus on colon cancer and diabetes. Specific activity of the PhD student will involve among others: (i) in vitro digestion and colonic fermentation of phenolic-rich vegetable foods; (ii) identification of phenolic compounds and colonic metabolites by high-resolution mass spectrometry and metabolomics; (iii) identification of the molecular mechanisms of anti-cancer activity of phenolic compounds and colonic metabolites by using colon adenocarcinoma cell lines; (iv) identification of the molecular mechanisms of anti-diabetic activity of phenolic compounds and colonic metabolites by using enzymatic assays and cell culture.

The candidate should have knowledge on the in vitro gastro-intestinal digestion models, mass spectrometry analysis and cell culture techniques. The PhD student is required to spend a period abroad of 6 months.