Whether it’s measles, mumps or just the common cold, we’ve all suffered from a virus at some point, and so do crops. While we might try to avoid the person coughing and sneezing in the corner, the problem with many viruses (both human and plant) is that those carrying the disease are not always obvious. Attaching a large, neon sign to an infected human would probably be considered slightly unethical, but pointing out the most virulent plant disease carriers is exactly what new research will enable scientists to do to vectors like aphids and whiteflies.
Viral plant diseases are estimated to cause $60billion of worth of damage every year around the world, but there are no cures – hot drinks and paracetamol can only go so far. The only ways to stop them are to plant resistant varieties (if you can get hold of one) or to control the vector. Traditionally, the latter has involved extensive pesticide spraying, which can be uneconomical and less than environmentally friendly. Thankfully, science is once again stepping up to the plate (or perhaps in this case, to the field) and offering a solution.
Not only do different species of vector transfer different diseases between different crops, but it has now been shown that vectors differ in how efficiently they transmit diseases, too. This is because genetic mutations have led to altered protein functions, resulting in changes to the way insects contract and transmit viruses. New research has identified the protein biomarkers that determine how efficiently aphids transmit diseases, and work is now focusing on other insect vectors, too. It is hoped that in the future, test kits that look for these biomarkers could be used in the field to determine how much of a threat an insect vector is to a crop. The vectors that are a significant threat could then be controlled using an integrated pest management system: by targeting only those that need to be controlled, there could be positive effects for both wallet and wildlife.
Ramanujan, K., BREAD grant funds research to tackle plant viral diseases, Chronical Online, 15 February 2012
Ramanujan, K., Basic Research to Enable Agricultural Development (BREAD) grant funds research to tackle plant viral diseases, SeedQuest, 17 February 2012