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How new research is helping fight the bacterial diseases threatening our food production and tree health

How new research is helping fight the bacterial diseases threatening our food production and tree health

The story about the health of our crops and plants is a complex one. Bacterial diseases are a major threat to our food supply and in the UK, such diseases are endangering the security of essential food crops such as potatoes, carrots and soft fruits. Also, they afflict our trees and wild plants – including our iconic oak trees.

This is an immediate issue. Devastating bacterial pathogens, such as Xylella fastidiosa – a plant pathogen that can be transmitted by sap-feeding insects – have not yet reached the UK but could cause severe economic and environmental damage if they do. Already we have seen the devastation it has caused to olive groves in Puglia. Other diseases are already endemic in the UK, including those affecting citrus plantations.

One problem is that bacterial diseases of plants are often very difficult to detect, and do not always show symptoms until a long time after the initial infection, making early treatment of the disease with chemicals challenging. Not only that, but many of these diseases can affect a large variety of host plants, with the pathogen transmitted through the air, soil or via invertebrate vectors such as insects.

That is why the recent news of a £13m funding boost for research to protect crops and trees from bacterial infection has been widely welcomed. In a research programme described as cutting-edge science, the funding for the vital research comes through UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF) and is managed by a collaboration of councils: the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), on behalf also of the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), as well as the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Scottish Government. Defra and the Scottish Government also provide funding.

This is vital, collaborative research. Forming part of a wider programme, the projects will address the threat bacterial diseases present to plants such as potatoes, tomatoes, salad vegetables and brassicas, as well as their effects on wild plants and oak trees. It will also include research into disease modelling and new techniques for disease suppression.

The funding programme, which occurs during the United Nations’ International Year of Plant Health, is the second phase of a wider programme on bacterial plant diseases supported by UKRI’s SPF and will complement the work of the recently established BRIGIT, a consortium focused on the surveillance and response to Xylella fastidiosa.

Professor Melanie Welham is the Executive Chair of BBSRC and for her, this research offers a new chapter in the story of our nation’s plant health. She said: “BBSRC is pleased to support this exciting range of projects, which will complement the research funded previously through the BRIGIT project on Xylella. Bacterial diseases of plants are a significant threat to food security around the world as well as threatening trees and other wild plants. These grants will provide a significant boost to bacterial plant disease research in the UK and lead to new ways to tackle diseases affecting food crops as well as iconic oak trees.”

This research could not come at a more crucial time. Studies of bacteria, their interactions with their plant hosts and the way they are spread through the environment will help to develop new strategies for controlling these diseases effectively—and crucially—mitigating their effect in the UK.

It is a long journey, but one that is benefiting from the UK’s world-leading expertise via the researchers funded through the programme. Researchers from institutions around the UK are directly contributing to the wider study of plant pathogens. Grant holders such as Professor Ian Toth from The James Hutton Institute, who is investigating blackleg disease in potatoes. Blackleg is caused by the bacterium Pectobacterium atrosepticum and can have a severe economic impact on UK potato crops, normally entering fields, gardens or allotments via infected seed potatoes.

A coordination team will work with grant holders funded through the Bacterial Plant Diseases programme (including the team working on BRIGIT). The team aims to understand each project's research goals, how they relate to other research projects, as well as identifying links and synergies between research activities, and increasing wider stakeholder participation in the programme.

For Gerry Saddler, Chief Plant Officer for Scotland, understanding all these challenges the teams and researchers face is vital. He said: “The maintenance of plant health is fundamental to life and is the cornerstone of our world-renowned agriculture, forestry and horticulture sectors, it is also a vital component in the preservation and enhancement of our natural environment. The Scottish Government alongside other funding bodies is fully supportive of this initiative. The threats to plant life through trade, travel and climate change are many and increasing and it is vital that we understand the challenges ahead so that we are better able to counteract them.”

With so much to learn, it is the process of collaboration that is crucial to this programme. Indeed, it’s by joining together through UKRI SPF funding, that solutions can be found, a fact highlighted by UK Chief Plant Health Officer, Nicola Spence: “We are a world-leader in plant health, and I’m delighted that Defra is part of the partnership behind this exciting new programme which will invest over £12.5 million in innovative plant health research. This includes a £3.3m investment in research under the Action Oak banner, to help to safeguard our iconic oak trees even further.

“The cutting-edge science supported through these grants will deepen our understanding of some of the most concerning plant diseases, helping us to manage them more effectively. All of this is vital in the protection of UK plant health and the benefits it provides, building more productive horticultural and agricultural industries.”

Professor Sir Duncan Wingham Executive Chair of NERC added: “This investment demonstrates the Natural Environment Research Council’s commitment to high-quality research that will address societal and environmental challenges. Bacterial disease threatens our food supply and wild plants. I’m confident these exciting projects will find solutions to improve plant health and safeguard biosecurity.”

And so, the story continues. Bacterial diseases threaten our food supply and wild plants, and that's why this new funding and collaboration is so welcome. Not only are we searching for solutions to protect our plant health, but we're helping to safeguard our wider plant biosecurity too, now and in the future.

The £13m funding project details at a glance:

  • This collaborative programme, funded through UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF) – with further funding support from Defra and the Scottish Government – enables research to counter diseases that threaten crop production, forestry, commercial and amenity horticulture, woodlands and wider biodiversity.
  • The first phase was run with a consortium led by the John Innes Centre, addressing the urgent UK’s response to Xylella fastidiosa, a highly infectious bacterium that has proved impossible to eradicate following outbreaks in continental Europe.
  • The second phase will now support multidisciplinary research on a wider range of bacteria that threaten plant health, bringing together existing expertise in plant pathology with state-of-the-art genomic and other new technologies.
  • Funding includes two specific, far-reaching studies on oak tree diseases.
  • Researchers are working extensively on vital projects around bacterial pathogens also afflicting food crops including potatoes, salad vegetables and brassicas
  • SPF has awarded eight grants for researchers to investigate bacteria pathogens, including blackleg disease in potatoes.
  • The second phase will also include crucial disease modelling research as well as exploring new, far-reaching techniques for disease suppression.

SPF bacterial pathogens grantholders (PDF, 77KB)