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Vivian Blok (1956-2022)

In: Nematology
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  • 1 Cell & Molecular Sciences Department, The James Hutton Institute, Invergowrie, Dundee DD2 5DA, UK
  • | 2 SASA, Roddinglaw Road, Edinburgh EH12 9FJ, UK
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Vivian Blok passed away peacefully at home on 4 April 2022, following several years of treatment for cancer. Vivian was a native of Canada and much of her early education was there, graduating in 1980 with a B.Sc. from the University of Waterloo and in 1983 with a M.Sc. from the University of Saskatchewan. She moved to the UK in 1984 and was awarded a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in 1988 for her work on RNA polymerases of influenza viruses. After a short postdoctoral position in Cambridge, Vivian moved to Scotland in 1989 to what was then the Scottish Crop Research Institute (now The James Hutton Institute). Vivian worked briefly in the Virology Department on the biology of groundnut rosette virus, before moving to the Nematology team in 1992, where she spent the remainder of her career.

Vivian’s work initially focused on genetic diversity of potato cyst nematodes (PCN; Globodera rostochiensis and G. pallida) and root-knot nematodes (Meloidogyne spp.), including development of diagnostic tools, with the longer term goal of using this information to understand virulence/avirulence in order to inform management strategies. This work also led to a better understanding of the patterns of introductions of PCN into the UK and Europe. Part of this work included an examination of the potential use of mtDNA sequences as tools for tracking introductions and understanding population genetics of PCN. This led to the discovery that the mtDNA of PCN is extremely unusual – present as a multipartite circular genome as opposed to the single mtDNA circle present in almost all other animals. Further work uncovered other unusual properties including recombination and paternal contributions to the mtDNA profile. Her work on root-knot nematodes led her into the area of host range in these pathogens.

Vivian was at the forefront of how genomics and transcriptomics resources were developed and used for plant-parasitic nematodes. She and her colleagues generated some of the first expressed sequence tag datasets for plant-parasitic nematodes, something that led to the discovery of pectate lyases in G. rostochiensis, the first such gene in any eukaryotic species, a finding published in Nature. She also contributed to genome projects for Meloidogyne incognita, G. pallida and G. rostochiensis. More recently Vivian examined the impact of temperature on PCN life cycles with an eye to how predicted climate change might influence the potential for a second generation of PCN in Europe and the implications of this for management. She also worked extensively on resistance to PCN and was a passionate believer that UK breeding programmes should be producing more commercially successful varieties with resistance to G. pallida.

While Vivian was a hugely productive and accomplished scientist, her main driver was always to do work that was useful, particularly when such work would bring real improvements to people’s lives. On a visit to SASA (Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture) in the mid-2000s, Vivian became concerned about the wellbeing of the team at SASA tasked with screening soil samples for the presence of PCN cysts, as they were involved in the arduous and repetitive process of examining samples under the microscope for the majority of each and every year. Furthermore, new EU legislation would require a huge scaling up of the samples processed in Scotland, and recruiting new staff for this work was not a realistic option. Vivian therefore worked with colleagues in SASA to develop and validate a PCR diagnostic for G. rostochiensis and G. pallida that would allow microscopical examination of samples and diagnosis of PCN to be replaced with a molecular tool. The new process also provides a valuable resource of DNA collected from field populations. More recently, much of Vivian’s energy was directed at ensuring that resistance to G. pallida was a primary target for potato breeding programmes, particularly at The James Hutton Institute.

Vivian derived huge enjoyment from working with colleagues all around the world. She was a partner in many excellent international scientific projects, starting in the 1990s with a series of EU-funded projects. Most recently she derived huge enjoyment from being part of the GLOBAL initiative, led by colleagues in Idaho and established following the discovery of a G. pallida infestation in that state. These projects allowed her to develop enduring and deep friendships with people across the world. She enjoyed the opportunities for travel that such collaborations bring and was always keen to experience the different cultures of the countries she visited. Travel also provided the opportunity for her to experience a wide range of artistic work, whether live theatre or music, painting or sculpture. Vivian hosted many visitors and went on many memorable road trips with them. Many of the students and visitors based in the Nematology lab at Hutton will have fond memories of being taken out for day trips to see some of Scotland during their visits – trips to the Isle of May in puffin season were a particular favourite. We will miss her keen intellect and her enthusiasm for life.

Vivian is survived by two sons, Rowan and Linden, to whom condolences are extended.

John T. Jones

Cell & Molecular Sciences Department

The James Hutton Institute, Invergowrie, Dundee DD2 5DA, UK

e-mail: john.jones@hutton.ac.uk

Jon Pickup

SASA, Roddinglaw Road, Edinburgh EH12 9FJ, UK

e-mail: jon.pickup@sasa.gov.scot

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