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Norwich scientists will lead £4.85m project to battle one of the world’s most dangerous plant diseases

Prof Saskia Hogenhout from the John Innes Centre will lead the BRIGIT research consortium agsint the xylella plant disease. Picture: John Innes Centre

Prof Saskia Hogenhout from the John Innes Centre will lead the BRIGIT research consortium agsint the xylella plant disease. Picture: John Innes Centre

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Norwich scientists will lead a £4.85m programme aiming to bolster the UK’s defences against invasion from one of the world’s most dangerous plant diseases.

The John Innes Centre, based at the Norwich Research Park, will coordinate a nationwide consortium of ten leading research institutes and universities, tasked with preparing for the possible spread of the devastating plant pathogen Xylella fastidiosa.

This bacterial pathogen, carried by insects such as froghoppers, can infect 500 plant species including horticultural crops, ornamental plants, and trees.

Although Xylella has not yet been reported in the UK, it is spreading across Europe and more than a million olive trees are dying from it in Italy alone.

If infected bugs arrive in the UK there is potential for the disease to spread through native insects to many plants, with consequences for commercial horticulture, amenity gardeners, forestry and woodlands.

Prof Saskia Hogenhout, project leader at the John Innes Centre and principal investigator of the BRIGIT consortium, said: “Despite the impact of this disease, we know very little about how the bacteria might spread in Northern Europe; the majority of research on Xylella and its insect vectors has been done in warmer southern climates. We believe this consortium is much-needed, bringing a joined-up approach to tackle a potentially devastating plant disease.”

The research will explore how Xylella can spread, either by insects or through the transport of plants by humans. A key focus will be introducing and improving best practice in the horticultural trade, to mitigate the impact of any introduction.

“Thousands of plants are imported into the UK every day and we need to increase knowledge to understand how the disease may spread in the UK if it is introduced,” said Prof Hogenhout.

The consortium represents the first phase of investment in a major £17.7m bacterial plant diseases research programme, funded by the UK Research and Innovation, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Natural Environment Research Council, as well as Defra and the Scottish government.

Prof Nicola Spence, chief plant health officer at Defra, said: “I am delighted that UKRI, together with co-funders Defra and the Scottish government, has agreed to fund this crucial research which will help us to better control bacterial plant diseases in the future. Protecting the UK’s plants from pests and diseases remains one of my department’s highest priorities, and we need robust science to underpin our actions to combat these threats.

“Xylella fastidiosa is one such bacterial disease and will form the focus of the first phase of the research programme. The knowledge gained through this programme should assist us in further optimising our ongoing surveillance and ensure that our contingency plans are underpinned by the most up-to-date evidence available.”

The ten institutions in the BRIGIT consortium are the John Innes Centre, Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Fera Science, Forest Research, Royal Horticultural Society, Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture, the University of Salford, the University of Stirling and the University of Sussex.

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