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Morgan Halane - Fighting the Slow-Motion Battle of Plants vs Disease

Updated: Dec 18, 2021

Meet Dr. Morgan Halane

Phytoimmunologist (Plant Doctor)

This project: Studying how plants get sick and how they fight back

Morgan Halane studies the battle between plants and diseases. Halane says we should think of a plant like a castle. It is protected by walls. It has a moat. People are shooting arrows.

Now, think of disease as an army. They want to get in. They have to break down the walls, swim the moats, and dodge the arrows.

Plants are made of cells. The cells have walls. The walls have holes (stomata). Disease can get in through those holes too. So, the plant has to have other ways to defend itself, like the castle’s moat or archers.

Plants defend themselves with molecules that “see” the bacteria army. They tell the leaf to curl up and die. That single leaf dies, but the rest of the plant lives. But the bacteria don’t give up. They have to evolve new molecules to hide themselves, like an invisibility cloak. That means the plant has to evolve molecules that “see” the cloak, and so it goes. It’s a slow-motion war between plants and bacteria.

“Follow your curiosity. Don’t be afraid of where it will lead you.”
Healthy bean plants (left), sick bean plants (right)

Morgan’s work can help us protect our food crops. If plants can protect themselves, we can use fewer chemicals on our food.

Morgan loves studying plants. He comes from a long line of people who loved growing plants. His sixth great-grandfather died at the age of 104, just two weeks after he had been “sitting in his chair making his garden.”

Morgan loves working in the lab. He works to discover things that are so small they are invisible. It takes many steps to prepare them to be seen with a microscope. The last step feels like opening a present. You finally get to see what was inside the whole time.

Morgan loves working outside too. Sometimes he gets to study rare plants. While he works, he sees things he has never seen before. Rare birds. Beautiful views.

If you'd like to be a scientist, Morgan says you should, “Follow your curiosity. Don’t be afraid of where it will lead you.” Don’t be afraid to make a wrong choice.

You can read these books to learn

more about plants . . .


by Lisa Amstutz

Note: This book is mostly about how plants protect themselves from animals rather than from disease.)

How do you survive when danger is near and you are rooted in the ground? Plants use their defenses and fight back! As readers turn the pages of this beautifully illustrated book, they will find fun and poetic language describing various situation where different plants find themselves under attack. This is followed by informative, science-based lessons about these plants and their survival methods. Backmatter includes a glossary and a STEM challenge activity to use at home or in the classroom.

You can find more books written by Lisa Amstutz here.


by Peter Wohlleben

Peter Wohlleben tells kids about the forest internet, aphids who keep ants as pets, nature’s water filters, and more fascinating things that happen under the canopy. Featuring simple activities kids can try on their own or with parents, along with quizzes, photographs, and more. It covers a range of amazing topics including: How trees talk to each other (hint: through the wood wide web!)

  • Why trees are important in the city

  • How trees make us healthy and strong

  • How trees get sick, and how we can help them get better

Visit his author page to see more books written by Peter Wohlleben

. . . and visit these websites to learn more.


Here's a great TED-Ed video about how plants defend themselves and "talk" to each other.

PBS Learning Media made this video about how plants send chemical messages to defend themselves against caterpillars.


Photo credits

Profile photo permission by Morgan Haldane

Castle battle image: This Photo is licensed under CC BY-SA

Plant leaf diagram: This Photo is licensed under CC BY-SA

Bean crop photo: permission by Morgan Halane

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