Bioscience to battle ash dieback

March 8th, 2013
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) has launched a bioscience response to ash dieback (Chalara fraxinea), a devastating fungus that threatens our third most common broadleaf tree (after oak and birch).

£2.4M of fast-track research funding has been awarded to gather an in-depth understanding of the ash dieback fungus and to provide genetic clues about some ash trees' natural resistance to attack. Computer models will also be built to develop monitoring plans for the distribution and spread of the fungus, as well as charting how the disease might progress. This knowledge will help to fight the fungus and replace lost trees with those more able to survive.

BBSRC Chief Executive Professor Douglas Kell said: "This agile funding response will ensure we improve our understanding of this devastating tree disease as quickly as possible. 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."

Genetic answers

Funding has been awarded to the Nornex consortium that brings together tree health and forestry specialists with scientists working with state-of-the-art genetic sequencing, biological data and imaging technologies to investigate the molecular and cellular basis of interactions between the fungus and ash trees.

Led by Professor Allan Downie at the John Innes Centre (JIC), the consortium includes: The Sainsbury Laboratory, East Malling Research, the University of Exeter, The Genepool at the University of Edinburgh, The Genome Analysis Centre, the Food and Environment Research Agency, Forest Research, the University of Copenhagen and the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute. The research will also complement a project funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) at Queen Mary University of London to decipher the ash tree's genetic code.

Genome sequences of up to 30 samples of the fungus from the UK and Europe will rapidly help to acquire in-depth genetic information to shed light on the infection process. These data will reveal clues to the origins of the disease and provide genetic 'markers' to allow the spread of different strains of the fungus to be followed. Genetic data will also provide direct insights into the nature of the fungus.

The consortium will obtain information about how the disease spreads by studying infection in climate-controlled growth facilities, tracking the fungus as it colonises the plant. This vital information will help to develop effective disease control strategies.

The project will also uncover how some ash trees can partially resist attack. About 2% of Danish trees appear to ward off the disease but little information on the genetic basis for this is known. Genetic data from these trees will be compared to susceptible trees to find variations in their genetic codes. By identifying these differences, genetic makers can be developed to help breeders produce more resistant trees.

The Nornex consortium, named for the three Norns who tend the ash tree of life 'Yggdrasil' in Norse mythology, will upload its data to an open-access website. This crowd-sourced, data-sharing approach will share the genetic data to exploit the expertise of plant and fungal research communities internationally.

Charting the disease

In addition to the consortium, Professor Christopher Gilligan with Dr Nik Cunniffe at the University of Cambridge and Dr Frank van den Bosch Rothamsted Research, have been awarded funding to develop and test mathematical, computer-based models to predict the spread of ash dieback in the UK, to improve strategies for surveillance and monitoring of the disease, and to inform ways to stop or delay the spread.

The models will build on preliminary work by the Cambridge group to model the initial incursion of ash dieback and other diseases. Models of the patterns, causes, and effects of the disease will link with geographical information systems to predict the spread of disease across the UK landscapes. The modelling will be closely linked to the Nornex project so that the epidemiological models evolve as knowledge of the fungus unfolds and our understanding of the biology of the disease, and the trees it affects, improves.

The research will help to answer key questions about where the disease is most likely to occur, where it will spread most rapidly and cause most damage, and where and when mitigation strategies should be most effectively used to slow or halt the spread.

The research will help to answer key questions about monitoring the disease, such as: how to detect the disease in new areas early enough to control it; where to sample to find new outbreaks efficiently; and how we know if the disease is absent from an area.

The project will also look at how diseases might spread due to industries and trades involving trees and through atmospheric dispersal.

Provided by Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

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