A Decision Support tool for Potato Blackleg Disease (DeS-BL)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Glasgow
Department Name: College of Medical, Veterinary, Life Sci


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Technical Summary

We have used soil microcosms to show that the causal agent of blackleg disease (Pba) can infect potato plants and cause disease directly from the soil, not only tubers. This is exacerbated by the presence of free-living nematodes (FLN) and excess water, providing new possibilities for research and disease control. Our multidisciplinary team of science and stakeholder experts will investigate the role of vectors, irrigation and crop rotation on Pba infection working from field and mesocosm scales to rhizosphere microbial communities. We wish to see how large-scale changes in the field impact on root architecture and exudate production and what influence this has on rhizosphere microbial communities and competition. The latest bacterial genomics, bioinformatics, imaging and GC-MS tools will be used, with potentially far reaching consequences beyond the present study.

Our key questions are: Do FLN act as vectors of Pba, how does infection occur and can blackleg be reduced by managing FLN in the soil though irrigation and /or nematicide? Do Pba-carrying insects transmit the pathogen between plants? Does irrigation and the use of cover crops change the microbiome in favour of or away from Pba and relatives, and what role do changes in root architecture and exudates play? Can we identify bacteriocins and their producing strains amongst these microbial communities and patent them for use in disease control?

We have unprecedented access to national datasets that have not previously been linked with blackleg disease research. These include over 10,000 national soil samples with FLN data, synthetic aperture radar (SAR) soil moisture data, the National Soil Archive and several other data sets. With these, and data from the project, we will use machine learning, game theory and other modelling approaches to find relationships between these data and blackleg and bring the information together in a decision support tool for the potato industry.

Planned Impact

Research outlined in this proposal is focused on strategic science aimed at improving control of the bacterial pathogen Pectobacterium atrosepticum (Pba); the causal agent of blackleg disease, which costs the UK potato industry £50M annually. Blackleg can occur at any time and in any stock across the whole supply chain.
Who might benefit from this research? Blackleg affects both seed and ware producers across all sectors of the potato industry, e.g. fresh, processed, and salad in an industry of c. 3000 growers producing > 6 M tonnes of potatoes from 120,000 ha of land p.a. The UK's seed potato industry is world renowned and the basis of a highly respected global export market. For the seed industry, blackleg, and therefore the outcomes of this project, affect the whole supply chain from those producing high grade seed, mainly in the north of Scotland, to distributors across the UK and exporters worldwide. Most ware growers in the UK, based mainly in England and Wales, have a direct interest in seed being free from Pba to limit blackleg and its associated economic and reputational loss. All parts of the industry will therefore benefit from this research. Defra and Scottish Government, agriculture industries (including agrochemical, cover crop and precision agriculture), and the public will also benefit. Many of the issues with blackleg seen in the UK also occur across Europe and in many other regions of the world. Globally, a third of potatoes are grown in China and India, and increasingly in sub-Saharan Africa. This project therefore also offers potential improvements in potato production in developing nations. The academic community in the UK and internationally will also benefit by research advances across a range of scientific areas and their multidisciplinary nature brought together to benefit plant health.
How might they benefit from this research? Blackleg continues to be the main cause of seed downgrading and failure by a factor of 10 in most years, with knock-on effects on ware growers, who mostly identify seed as being the cause of blackleg in their ware crops. Blackleg has become more common in the UK over the last 8-10 years, with no clear reason why. Control options have remained relatively unchanged for over 50 years. A new approach to control is therefore desperately needed by the industry. This project achieves this on many levels, offering not one but multiple possible improvements in control by moving away from traditional research (often on seed contamination) to focus more on soil and the wider environment. Potential improvements for the control of blackleg from the project include changes to irrigation regimes, monitoring and management of free-living nematode (putative Pba vectors), changes in crop rotations and the use of cover crops, and the use of physical protection to reduce aerial transmission, all brought together and supported by environmental data subjected to novel machine learning methods to develop a series of integrated decision support tools for industry use. To ensure that the industry benefits from our findings, an economic and social appraisal of the project outcomes will be undertaken to ensure no barriers to adoption exist for industry uptake. In addition, we have our industry collaborators available throughout the project to discuss practical aspects of our findings, and to co-construct a wide range of stakeholder engagement activities during the life of the project and beyond. Defra and Scottish Government will benefit through a resilient potato industry and its economic output and export potential. There will be benefits to industry through a potential new application of an existing product (nematicide to treat blackleg), marketing and sale of cover crops and new uses for precision agriculture and associated decision tools. The public will benefit through cheaper retail potato prices.


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Description Potato Blackleg Disease, caused by Pectobacterium atrosepticum (Pba) and related bacterial species is responsible for losses of £50m annually in the UK alone. Currently there are no effective treatments apart from plant health screening. Bacteriocins are narrow spectrum antibiotics produced by bacteria that kill related species. Under earlier BBSRC-funded projects we have identified and characterized two bacteriocins from Pectobacterium spp. In work funded by this grant we find that one of these is highly effective in killing nearly all UK isolates of Pba and at concentrations lower than conventional antibiotics. We have also identified and are testing more bacteriocins, at least one of which is also effective in killing Pba. These are stable enough for use as a treatment and effective in reducing bacterial titres in infected potatoes.

We are now setting up a spin-off company to develop and exploit the use of these bacteriocins as a prophylactic treatment for blackleg disease.
Exploitation Route Development of an agricultural treatment to prevent or reduce Pba infection in ware and seed potatoes. To be used by growers and seed potato companies.
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology

Description As the basis for the development of an agricultural treatment for Potato Blackleg Disease. This will be accomplished by the formation of a spin-off company to develop and market the treatment.
First Year Of Impact 2022
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Manufacturing, including Industrial Biotechology
Impact Types Economic

Description Bacteriocin Commercial Scoping
Amount £14,400 (GBP)
Funding ID 302389 
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2022 
End 03/2022
Description CASDU CROP SOLUTIONS: Developing a commercial bacteriocin-based treatment for protecting seed and ware potatoes against Blackleg disease and soft rot.
Amount £8,000 (GBP)
Organisation IBioIC 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2023 
End 07/2023
Description University of Glasgow Impact Accelerator Account
Amount £24,059 (GBP)
Organisation Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 02/2023 
End 07/2023
Title Update/improvement of Orion Computer Cluster 
Description The grant helped in extending Orion Cluster https://userweb.eng.gla.ac.uk/umer.ijaz/#orion a £200K+ microbial high perfomance computing facility managed by Dr Umer Zeeshan Ijaz 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2022 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The cluster serves as the backbone to process genomics data generate from the grant 
Description Exploiting Bacteriocins as treatments for Diseases in Cherry 
Organisation National Institute of Agronomy and Botany (NIAB)
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have tested 24 strains of Pseudomonas syringae isolated from infected cherry trees in the UK for sensitivity to two bacteriocins, Puticacin L1 and Syringacin M1. We have identified several bacteriocin-sensitive strains. We are now collaborating on studies to test the efficacy of bacteriocin treatment on bacterial titres in infected plants
Collaborator Contribution Partners have sent us isolates for testing. Partners have assisted in genome sequencing of resistant and sensitive strains of Pseuomonas syringae.
Impact No outcomes yet
Start Year 2020
Description Exploiting Bacteriocins as treatments for plant diseases caused by Xanthomonas species. 
Organisation University of Warwick
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have identified 5 new bacteriocins from Xanthomonas species. Partners have sent us 20 strains of different Xanthomonas spp from UK and worldwide. We have tested these for sensitivity. We are now initiating experiments to test the efficacy in suppressing infections in UK brassica crops
Collaborator Contribution Strains sent for analysis.
Impact None yet
Start Year 2020