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Bioscience to battle ash dieback

Bioscience to battle ash dieback - 8 March 2013. Image: JIC
  • £2.4 M to address the national need for urgent research into the ash dieback fungus and the genetics of resistance in ash trees
  • Disease spread to be studied in climate-controlled facilities
  • Genome sequences of up to 30 samples of the fungus
  • New computer models will help to monitor and predict the course of the disease

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).

The JIC team. Image: JIC
The John Innes Centre team. Image: JIC

£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."

Ancient infected ash coppice. Image: JIC
Ancient infected ash coppice. Image: JIC

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 University of York, The Genepool at The University of Edinburgh, The Genome Analysis Centre, 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.

New technology to fight ash dieback. Image: JIC
New technology to fight ash dieback. Image: JIC

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 at oadb.tsl.ac.uk . 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

Professor Allan Downie with ash samples. Image: JIC
Professor Allan Downie with ash samples. Image: JIC

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.

Fungus shake-flast culture for DNA sequencing. Image: JIC
Fungus shake-flast culture for DNA sequencing. Image: JIC

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.

ENDS

About Ash dieback

Ash dieback, caused by the fungus Chalara fraxinea is present in 391 sites in the UK, with 170 in established woodlands (as distinct from recent planted trees). It is highly infectious and kills most ash trees it infects. www.forestry.gov.uk/chalara

About the funding

The funding is part of a wider response to UK tree health, including:

  • The Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) Partnership is shortly to announce a new initiative to fund research into tree pests and pathogens, and associated plant biosecurity. At least £6.5M will be available for research projects and details will be made available on the LWEC website in due course
  • Research Council funding is also being used to sequence the entire ash tree genome. The £50,000 NERC-funded project hopes to produce a first draft of the tree's entire genetic sequence by August 2013

About BBSRC

BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, and with an annual budget of around £500M (2012-2013), we support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk.
For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes.

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Tags: University of Cambridge data genetics The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) The John Innes Centre microbes plants Rothamsted Research BBSRC press release