University of Melbourne researchers join global research project to tackle deadly plant pathogen

Researchers at the University of Melbourne have joined a worldwide effort to improve the detection, containment and elimination of one of the world’s most detrimental plant pathogens, Xylella fastidiosa.

The bacterium Xylella fastidiosa lives in the water-conducting system of plants, disrupting the stream of water and mineral nutrients in the xylem vessels (conducting channels in the wood) of host plants, which can change the physiological processes of the plant, leading to its death.

Economic losses from plant diseases caused by Xylella fastidiosa are estimated at US$1 billion worldwide every year. The pathogen has devastated crops in parts of the world, such as olive trees in Southern Italy, almond trees in Spain, and grapevines in parts of the USA and South America. It is also present in Iran, Taiwan and a number of other countries. In fact, the bacterium can potentially infect more than 500 plant species worldwide.

Since 2015, the European Union (EU) has funded emergency research in response to the sudden discovery of outbreaks across Italy, France, Spain and Portugal through surveillance programs. However, scientists say more sophisticated strategies are needed.

The new, five-year BeXyl Project aims to advance and transfer into practice the most promising prevention and containment strategies and is being funded by the EU research program Horizon Europe (≈ €7 million).

The project is coordinated by Dr Blanca Landa, IAS-CSIC (Spain), with the University of Melbourne joining 30 partners from 14 countries, including over 40 government agencies, nurseries and farmers’ associations, NGOs, government agencies and operational groups of the EU-funded European Innovation Partnership.

Australian project leader, University of Melbourne Professor of Remote Sensing and Precision Agriculture, Pablo Zarco-Tejada, said the project is important for ‘preparedness’ strategies for Australia if the pathogen makes its way here. His team will particularly contribute its expertise in developing remote sensing algorithms using advanced hyperspectral and thermal imagery to detect symptoms induced by the pathogen as early as possible.

“The work package the University of Melbourne is leading will focus on remote sensing algorithms and methods to detect Xylella infections at large scale, using airborne and satellite technologies,” Professor Zarco-Tejada said.

With data collected from several study sites worldwide, we will develop global models for the early detection of Xylella infection, which will benefit Australia in the event of the pathogen arriving here.

“The BeXyl project will pool research in locations worldwide where the pathogen has been identified, to develop characterisation of the pathogen, identify the species of plants affected and the potential resistance of plant varieties, and develop large-scale surveillance methods to monitor areas affected and detect outbreaks as soon as possible.”

Food and agribusiness

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Professor Pablo J. Zarco-Tejada