Norwich Research Park scientists leading the ash dieback fightback
09:19 13 February 2013
Plant scientists at the Norwich Research Park have made some important genetic discoveries which will help them spearhead the national fightback against ash dieback disease.
Norfolk became the centre of the outbreak last September when the UK’s first confirmed case of the deadly Chalara fungal infection was found in trees at Lower Wood in Ashwellthorpe.
The region’s bio-science community at Colney, including the John Innes Centre (JIC), The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC), and the Sainsbury Laboratory is now at the forefront of the efforts to understand and combat the pathogen.
And their initial progress was outlined last night at a public event in the JIC’s conference centre.
Diane Saunders, of the Sainsbury Laboratory, said scientists had successfully isolated the Chalara fraxinea fungus from infected samples and extracted DNA for genetic sequencing using the latest technology at TGAC.
As a result, they had created the first genome data for the UK variety of the disease, which can now be compared to similar fungal diseases and healthy trees in an effort to find resistant genes.
She said a key toxin used by the pathogen had also been identified, and a more detailed picture had been formed of the reproductive life-cycle of the fungus.
All the information is being made available on a “crowd-sourcing” website where academics and researchers across the world can share and analyse data.
Prof Allan Downie, of the JIC, said the Norwich Research Park’s proximity to the infected zones had galvanised their efforts.
“We are right at the middle of it,” he said.
“There is an epidemic here, and it is East Anglia and Kent that is catching the worst of it, which makes me think it is probably a wind-borne infection, blowing in from Europe.”
Prof Downie said the work at the Norwich Research Park was improving understanding of how the disease was spread from fungal spores, onto ash leaves and into branches.
He said he had compared genetic data from infected trees in Kenninghall with samples taken from France, and said: “They seem quite diverse, and that raises the question: Does it can cross with indigenous fungus?
“And does it have an Achilles’ heel that means we can get rid of it?”
Prof Downie said the next step would be to find resistant genes which could be used to breed strains of ash which were less susceptible to Chalara – although he acknowledged this would take several years.
The event also included an update on the AshTag smartphone application pioneered at the UEA, which uses geo-tagging software to allow users to record photographs and locations of suspected cases.
Chris Blincoe of the UEA’s Adapt Low Carbon Group said the app took only four days to create and was downloaded 12,000 times, with users submitting more than 1040 possible sightings – of which about 50 were considered “likely” enough cases to be forwarded to plant health experts for verification.
Mr Blincoe said: “We had a real strong sense from people that they were pleased we had done something that allowed them to tale some action that was supporting what was happening. It proves that the right kind of technology can help the authorities.”
According to Forestry Commission data, there are now more than 370 confirmed UK cases of Chalara, with at least 170 in wild sites – and the majority of those are in East Anglia.