UK consortium to combat serious threat to plant health

X. fas in olive trees in Puglia, Italy by Dr Steven White (CEH)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Right Honourable Lord Henley, has announced funding for a major bacterial plant diseases research programme supported by UK Research and Innovation’s Strategic Priorities Fund.

The first phase of this investment initiates a UK-wide consortium to prepare for the possible introduction and spread of the devastating plant pathogen Xylella fastidiosa into the UK.

BRIGIT, a consortium co-ordinated by the John Innes Centre, will work to enhance UK surveillance and response to Xylella fastidiosa. BRIGIT brings together ten leading UK research organisations, in a £4.85m programme aiming to improve methods of diagnosis and detection of Xylella, to identify factors that could lead to its spread, and to prepare to minimise the risk of the pathogen to the UK.

The bacterial plant diseases programme is a £17.7m collaboration between UK Research and Innovation Councils, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) – together with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Scottish Government who are providing £1.1m of additional funding.

Professor Nicola Spence, Chief Plant Health Officer and Deputy Director for plant and bee health at Defra said: “I am delighted that UKRI, together with co-funders Defra and the Scottish Government, has agreed to fund this crucial research which will help us to better control bacterial plant diseases in the future. Protecting the UK’s plants from pests and diseases remains one of my Department’s highest priorities, and we need robust science to underpin our actions to combat these threats.

Xylella fastidiosa is one such bacterial disease and will form the focus of the first phase of the research programme. The knowledge gained through this programme should assist us in further optimising our ongoing surveillance and ensure that our contingency plans are underpinned by the most up-to-date evidence available.”

Xylella has been described by the European Commission as “one of the most dangerous plant bacteria worldwide.” This insect-transmitted bacterial plant pathogen infects 500 species including crops, ornamental plants, and trees. In Italy alone, over one million olive trees are dying from Xylella in a disease called Olive Quick Decline Syndrome. So far, Xylella has not been reported in the UK.

Professor Saskia Hogenhout, project leader at the John Innes Centre and principal investigator of BRIGIT, says: “Despite the impact of this disease, we know very little about how the bacteria might spread in Northern Europe; the majority of research on Xylella and its insect vectors has been done in warmer southern climates. We believe this consortium is much-needed, bringing a joined-up approach to tackle a potentially devastating plant disease.”

Xylella is a bacterial pathogen, transmitted by insects that feed on the xylem tissues that transport water in plants. These bugs include sharpshooters in the Americas and spittlebugs/froghoppers in Europe. The common froghopper feeds on a wide range of plants, and it is commonly found across most of Northern Europe, including the UK.

If Xylella-infected plants or insects that carry the pathogen do enter the UK, there is potential for the disease to spread through native insects, to many plants, with consequences for commercial and amenity horticulture, forestry, crop production, woodlands and wider biodiversity, with economic, environmental and social impacts.

“Thousands of plants are imported into the UK every day and we need to increase knowledge to understand how the disease may spread in the UK if it is introduced”, explains Professor Hogenhout.

The research carried out by the consortium will focus on how Xylella may spread in the UK either via insect vectors or via transport of plants across the UK by humans.

A key focus will be introducing and improving best practice in the horticultural trade, to mitigate the impact of any introduction.

The BRIGIT consortium involves scientists across a spectrum of biological and social sciences, including genomics and molecular biology, plant pathology, entomology and ecology, and engages stakeholders and policymakers.

The ten institutions in the BRIGIT consortium are: John Innes Centre, Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales (NMU), Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Fera Science Ltd, Forest Research, Royal Horticultural Society, Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture, The University of Salford, The University of Stirling and the University of Sussex. The consortium will collaborate with international scientists and organizations, including the University of Lisbon on further characterization of the insect vector.

Professor Melanie Welham, Executive Chair of BBSRC added, “BBSRC is supporting this important collaborative project to improve the methods of diagnosis and detection of Xylella. Although there hasn’t been a case reported in the UK yet, we can take positive action to understand more, and mitigate the spread of this devastating plant pathogen.”

Dr Steven White from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology says: “Our collaborative team is well placed to predict the spread of Xylella fastidiosa in the UK; our collective experiences with this disease in Southern Europe will help us to prepare.

Given the devastation that this disease can cause in economically important plants and the spread-rate throughout Europe, it is important that we are prepared for a potential UK invasion and have mitigation strategies that are informed by cutting-edge science”

BRIGIT includes four work packages:

Co-design, crowd sourcing and knowledge exchange

BRIGIT will provide information about the botany of plant hosts for X. fastidiosa and their typical symptoms of infection in plants. Open access databases on insect vector distributions, taxonomy and genome sequence data will be made available online for wider audiences.

Enhancing diagnostic capabilities

This will improve various aspects of detection of X. fastidiosa in plants and insect vectors. Fera science Ltd will co-ordinate work within BRIGIT on targeted sampling and diagnostic sensitivity for more reliable detection of the bacteria in diverse plant and tree species. New diagnostic techniques will be explored to rapidly detect sources of introduction.

Investigating insect vector biology

Will generate a better understanding of the biology of the estimated 20 xylem-feeding insect species that may transmit X. fastidiosa in the UK. The geographic distribution of these insect species and the plant species they colonise across Europe will be investigated. Genetic population structures of these species will be captured to identify insect migration routes between habitats and across the UK.

X. fastidiosa epidemiology modelling

Will generate models for fine and large-scale dispersal of X. fastidiosa via insect vectors and plant transport. This will include a human behaviour component to investigate the effects of human movement of plants on disease spread. This will inform surveillance and control strategies

Image Credit: Xylella fastidiosa devastates olive trees in Puglia, Italy by Dr Steven White (CEH).

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