Potato irrigation (c) Tim Scrivener

New technology for identifying diseases and harnessing the plant’s own defences are two key ways scientists hope to help growers protect their crops in the coming years. Richard Allison reports


New high tech DNA techniques are proving valuable in the fight against foreign diseases at borders, as well helping scientists gain a better understanding of costly problems like potato scab.


Speaking at the AHDB Crop Research Conference in London, Rick Mumford of the Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA) highlighted the difficulty in identifying pathogens in imported plants and seed.


“Detection in the field is not easy,” he said. “There is the sheer volume of imports, inspections are not carried out in the ideal environment for DNA testing and symptoms may not be visible.”


However, one advance that is helping inspectors is a new portable DNA analyser, allowing testing to move out of the lab and into the field.


He explained that the device is based on loop-mediated isothermal amplification (LAMP), which offers many other benefits over the existing PCR-based (polymerase chain reaction) methods, including rapid results in just 10-15 minutes (rather than days) and being more reliable.


The device has been successfully trialled by inspectors and the system has been deployed at Heathrow and Zurich airports. “Forestry Commission inspectors have also used it in the field to identify ash dieback.”


But what about the unknown pathogens? He highlighted that on average, there are 1.3 new viruses a year discovered by Food and Environment Research Agency (FERA). “There is a lot of stuff out there.”


The second area being developed by FERA is the use of genomics for the rapid identification of new or unusual pathogens. Recent developments mean they can compare whole genomes of organism rather than handful of genes or study whole populations, such as soil microbes.


One example is the Horticulture Development Company funded project tackling internal browning of carrots. This has been a long standing issue with no known cause.


Affected carrots exhibit brown necrotic patches, leading to whole crop rejection on processing lines where more than 5% of carrots are affected.


Conventional techniques failed to identify the cause. So researchers used the new technique and found DNA from many viruses, including some unexpected and novel. It revealed that carrot yellow leaf virus was the cause.


Another project is looking at potato scab. “We know that irrigation helps reduce scab, but how does this exactly work?”


Researchers are hoping to find what groups of soil microbes are causing the problem. Glasshouse experiments show that in the absence of soil microbes, irrigation has no effect on scab level.


“The aim is to help farmers better target irrigation for scab control.”


Harnessing nature


Like animals, plants also have an defence system against disease and one researcher believes it could be harnessed to protect crops from future attack.


It has been known for some time that plants can have their defences switched on or off, says Jurriaan Ton, lecturer and research fellow at the University of Sheffield.


“But we now know that there is a ‘primed’ state in between. These plants then subsequently have a faster and stronger immune response to future infection.”


There are a number of ways of priming plants including pathogen attack, beneficial soil microbes, chemical signals released by other plants under attack and some chemicals.


Priming gave broad-spectrum protection, but what was the cost? he asked.


“There is a minor reduction in growth, but in high disease pressure situations, there is an overall benefit in growth and seed production.”


He is now looking possible strategies, such as inherited priming from parent plants exposed to disease. Up to the third generation, he saw a reduction in grapevine downy mildew in arabidopsis (mouse-ear cress) plants when exposed to the pathogen.


Looking ahead, he believes priming could have a role, but added that as it was not 100% effective, it wouldn’t be used alone by the farmer. “It could be integrated with other approaches, as part of integrated pest management.”








About the conference 

The AHDB Crop Research Conference was the first organised by the HGCA that was not aimed directly at levy payers, instead bringing together researchers and academia.


“It’s the first time we have tried this,” says Susannah Bolton, head of research and knowledge transfer at HGCA. “Farming is an industry hungry for science and there is a huge amount that could be applied from other areas.”


And the timing is ideal following on from the government’s launch of its £160m agri-tech strategy aimed at boosting farming technology by turning the UK into a world leader in agricultural science.


HGCA hopes the event will help stimulate new ways of looking at challenges, for example combining mathematics and biology in modelling disease spread. In addition, Dr Bolton hopes to encourage researchers to consider the outcome of their work and how to deliver it to farmers.


“Also if the conference can help inspire the new generation of crop scientists, that would be a really good outcome.”