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.
In the same way that mosquitoes transmit the malaria-causing parasite, Plasmodium, between humans, some species of leafhopper transmit phytoplasma bacteria between plants. Phytoplasmas are bacterial pathogens that infect the plant phloem and require sap-sucking bugs to transport them to other plants. Researchers at the John Innes Centre on Norwich Research Park have found that leafhoppers living on plants infected with phytoplasma produced more offspring. This is the first time that a particular protein in the bacteria has been found that reduces the plants’ defensive reactions to pests such as leafhoppers, allowing the bugs to thrive.