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UK-wide consortium to combat serious threat to plant health

Xylella fastidiosa in olive trees in Puglia, Italy. Copyright: Dr Steven White - Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Right Honourable Lord Henley, announces 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 £4.85 million 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 £17.7 million 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 £1.1 million 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


Further info about - UK Animal and Plant Health: understanding and countering bacterial plant diseases 

Total Funding: £17.7 million from UKRI plus £1.1 million from Defra and the Scottish Government

Climate change and increased international trade heighten risks to UK plant health and biosecurity from the emergence and spread of bacterial diseases.

This collaborative programme will enable research to counter diseases that threaten crop production, forestry, commercial and amenity horticulture, woodlands and wider biodiversity with severe economic, environmental and social impacts.

In a first phase of the programme a broad consortium of institutions co-ordinated by the John Innes Centre has been awarded £4.85 million to address the urgent need for evidence to inform the UK’s response to the potentially devastating Xylella fastidiosa, a highly infectious bacterium that has proved impossible to eradicate following outbreaks in continental Europe.

If Xylella reached the UK, there would be risks to numerous trees and plants, with potentially widespread damage to rural and urban landscapes, and restrictive control measures on the horticultural trade.

A second phase of the programme will support multidisciplinary research on a wider range of bacteria that threaten plant health.  By bringing together existing expertise in plant pathology with state-of-the-art genomic and other new technologies - enabled by the SPF - the UK is well placed to become a world leader in countering those threats.

About the John Innes Centre

The John Innes Centre is an independent, international centre of excellence in plant science and microbiology, which is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).  Our mission is to generate knowledge of plants and microbes through innovative research, to train scientists for the future, to apply our knowledge of nature’s diversity to benefit agriculture, the environment, human health, and wellbeing, and engage with policy makers and the public. Follow us on Twitter: @JohnInnesCentre

About the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology

The Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) is the UK's Centre of Excellence for integrated research into land and freshwater ecosystems and their interaction with the atmosphere. CEH is part of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and employs more than 450 people at four major sites in England, Scotland and Wales. CEH tackles complex environmental challenges to deliver practicable solutions so that future generations can benefit from a rich and healthy environment. Follow us on Twitter: @CEHScienceNews

About the RHS

The Royal Horticultural Society, the world’s leading gardening charity, aims to enrich everyone’s life through plants, and make the UK a greener and more beautiful place. This aspiration underpins all that we do, from inspirational gardens and shows, through our scientific research, to our education and community programmes such as Campaign for School Gardening and Britain in Bloom. We produce key publications, hold a world-class collection of horticultural books and botanical art, and sell the very best plants and gardening gifts. Follow us on Twitter:@The_RHS

About Fera Science Limited

Formerly the Royal Horticultural Society, Fera Science Limited is a joint private/public sector venture between Capita plc and Defra. Based on the National Agri-Food Innovation Campus in Sand Hutton, Fera’s vision is to be a leading supplier of scientific solutions, evidence and advice across the agri-food supply chain.

Employing more than 300 scientists, Fera turns expertise and innovation into ways to support and develop a sustainable food chain, a healthy natural environment, and to protect the global community from biological and chemical risks. Publishing over 100 peer-reviewed scientific papers annually. Follow us to Twitter: @FeraScience

About SASA

A Division of the Scottish Government Agriculture and Rural Economy Directorate, our primary role is to provide scientific services and advice in support of Scotland’s agriculture and wider environment. Whilst much of our work is in support of arable agriculture with a focus on plant health we also provide services in food safety, wildlife management and crime providing specialist advice to Scottish Ministers.

SASA leads the Euphresco project Xylella fastidiosa and its insect vectors and is a member of the Scottish Governments Plant Health Centre.

About the University of Salford

The University of Salforddraws on an iconic industrial heritage to offer real world learning and research experiences and create highly-employable graduates. Leading in media and digital, technology, science & engineering and health, its strategy to provide degree courses embedded in industry and the professions is proving successful with applications rising by 30% in three years and recruitment bucking the national trend.

Salford is a top 10 university for SME engagement. The University works with more than 1,000 companies annually and was ranked 5th in the UK in the Whitty Review for contacts with small-to-medium enterprises. Follow us on Twitter:@SalfordUni

About Museum Wales - Amgueddfa Cymru

Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, which operates seven museums, currently has over 68 pioneering research projects ranging from natural sciences and art to history and social sciences. These are run from across the seven national museums including National Museum Cardiff, St Fagans National Museum of History, the National Roman Legion Museum, Big Pit National Coal Museum, the National Wool Museum, the National Slate Museum and the National Waterfront Museum. Follow us on Twitter: @amgueddfacymru

About the University of Stirling

The University of Stirling is ranked fifth in Scotland and 40th in the UK for research intensity in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. Stirling is committed to providing education with a purpose and carrying out research which has a positive impact on communities across the globe – addressing real issues, providing solutions, and helping to shape society.

Interdisciplinary in its approach, Stirling’s research informs its teaching curriculum and facilitates opportunities for knowledge exchange and collaboration between staff, students, industry partners and the wider community. Follow us on Twitter: @StirUni

University of Sussex

The University of Sussexchallenges convention. From the campus’ modernist architecture on the edge of a rural national park, to progressive staff, to the inspiring students, to the very tone of the institution and the nature of its conversations, through to the expressions of radicalism, critical thinking and, at times, dissent.

Our research creates new agendas, contributes new knowledge, and provides new ideas and solutions that are helping to shape the world. We challenge conventional thinking and discourses, offering inspiring and creative ways to understand and solve global issues. Follow us on Twitter: @SussexUni


UK Research and Innovation Media Office

Tags: funding fundamental bioscience press release University of Sussex The University of Stirling The University of Salford crops John Innes Centre