British scientists have cracked the genetic code of the ash dieback fungus, raising hopes that the disease can be beaten.
Scientists from The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) and the John Innes Centre in Norwich sampled the pith from a twig, extracted RNA and sequenced it.
TSL took cuttings of infected ash in Ashwellthorpe wood in Norfolk, where the fungus was first identified in the natural environment in the UK.
They hope genome sequences of three samples of the fungus will shed light on the infection process and reveal clues to the origins of the disease.
The data will also provide genetic markers to allow the spread of different strains of the fungus to be followed.
It will be published on the OpenAshDieback website as part of a £2.4m project funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).
“The tiny amount of data we have so far is already suggesting interesting insights and we want others to start poring over it straight away,” said Sophien Kamoun, head of TSL.
Diane Saunders, a TSL researcher, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme that if resistant ash trees were found in the UK, they could be used in breeding programmes to “restore some of the population devastated by this pathogen”.
New computer models will also help monitor the course of the disease threatening ash trees.
BBSRC chief executive Douglas Kell said: “Little is known about the fungus, why it is so aggressive, or its interactions with the trees that it attacks. This prevents effective control strategies.
“These grants will enable the UK’s world-leading bioscience community to speed up the response to tackling the disease directly. It will also help us to understand and harness the ways in which some ash trees can defend themselves naturally.”
Ash dieback, caused by the fungus Chalara fraxinea, causes blackened, dead leaves, lens-shaped lesions on stems and branches and trees with withered tops and shoots.
According to the Forestry Commission, ash dieback has been found on 391 sites in the UK.
The disease has infected a large amount of trees in northern Europe and wiped out 90% of ash trees in Denmark. Scientists fear is could cause similar damage in the UK.