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East Anglia Future 50

Infected aphids deployed in science's battle against sugar beet disease

PUBLISHED: 06:43 22 June 2018 | UPDATED: 15:40 22 June 2018

Morley Innovation Day. PhD student Alistair Wright on the microscope at the British Beet Research Organisation stand. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Morley Innovation Day. PhD student Alistair Wright on the microscope at the British Beet Research Organisation stand. Picture: ANTONY KELLY

Archant Norfolk 2018

Norwich scientists have hand-inoculated 75,000 sugar beet plants with disease-carrying aphids as part of their effort to protect crops from yield-killing infections in the wake of chemical bans.

Dr Mark Stevens of the British Beet Research Organisation in a sugar beet field. Picture: BBRODr Mark Stevens of the British Beet Research Organisation in a sugar beet field. Picture: BBRO

The EU ban on neonicotinoids – originally introduced on flowering crops like oilseed rape due to fears over the health of bees and pollinators – was extended to all outdoor crops earlier this year.

Beet growers at the Morley Innovation Day, at Morley Farms near Wymondham, said they were “nervous” about the effect of the ban on next year’s sugar beet.

But Norwich-based researchers at the British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO) are working on novel new ways to protect this staple East Anglian crop from infections such as virus yellows, spread by aphids which previously could have been controlled with neonicotinoids.

Infected aphids are used to test the performance of new varieties crossed with wild sea beet, which can be found growing at the coast, in a bid to incorporate its natural viral resistance into commercial crops.

Dr Mark Stevens of the BBRO said: “Sugar beet yields have gone up 25pc in the last ten years, but we do face some challenges going forward, particularly the loss of chemicals like neonicotinoids.

“But if there is one thing we are good at, it is innovating. We are doing a whole lot of trials, including here at Morley, with different varieties and other insecticides and treatments which we’re not using on sugar beet at the moment.

“We are also looking at developing resistance for virus yellows. We have just inoculated 75,000 plants by hand with virus-carrying aphids here at Morley.

“We are breeding the aphids, and we introduce them onto plants which are infected with the virus. As they breed and feed they acquire the virus.

“The plants are covered in these virus-carrying aphids, so we chop up the plants and put them in a plastic box. Then we take a piece of the tissue with aphids on it, and we place it on the new plants. We let the virus multiply over the weeks and then go back to assess the plants for their symptoms.

“It will be several years before resistant varieties become commercially available. But these are the kind of things we have to do to find a solution.”

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