Fire blight is a very contagious plant diseaseaffecting mainly pear, quince and apple trees, andannually causing damage in the European Union of approximately
3 million. To date, there is no completely reliableway to control fire blight, which is caused by a bacterium. Streptomycin – mainlyknown as an antibiotic against lung tuberculosis and other bacterial infections in humans– is currently the strongest pesticide available. However, the Union is expected to ban its useas a pesticide because of the risk that it can lead to antibiotic resistance in fire blight and in humandisease-causing microbes. With ten partners from five countries, the Co-operative Research Bactofruct project aims to develop a sustainable biological pesticide against fire blight.
Fire blight, caused by the bacterium
, is a highlycontagious disease affecting primarily pear, quince and appletrees, and sometimes rose bushes, almond, apricot, cherry, plum,raspberry, and related trees and shrubs in the rose family. Its nameevokes a scorched appearance among infected trees, with dead,blackened leaves and fruit clinging to branches. Infections candestroy limbs, even entire shrubs or trees. In warm, humid weather,where hail may open vulnerable wounds on branches, the diseasecan be unstoppable, destroying entire orchards, as it did in 2000in eastern Switzerland. Each year in the EU it causes damageestimated at
3 million, while it has also destroyed orchards in NorthAmerica, New Zealand, and Japan.No single treatment can stamp out a major fire-blight infection. Sprayscontaining streptomycin – mainly known as an effective antibioticfor treating human lung tuberculosis and other bacterial infections– can help, but these have limited effectiveness and may lead todevelopment of streptomycin-resistant forms of fire blight, andperhaps of human diseases, too, due to antibiotic residues in fruitand honey consumed by humans. The EU is committed to reducingsuch residues in the human food chain and is soon expected to banthe use of streptomycin as a pesticide.Coordinated by the Dutch biotechnology firm ECOstyle B.V., theCo-operative Research Bactofruct project team thinks they mayhave found a cure for fire blight – using another bacteria to killthe disease. The project is teaming up two other biotechnologySMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises), Dr Schaette, ofGermany and Newbiotechnic, of Spain, and seven other partners,with the aim of developing a sustainable biological pesticideagainst fire blight.
The first plant disease shown to be caused by a bacterium ratherthan the much more abundant fungus diseases, fire blight’s path canbe mapped from the United States to England and eventually tocontinental Europe. Usually appearing during rapid growth inspring, the disease typically infects blossoms, stems and succulentshoots first, spreading via splashing rain, insects (especially bees),contaminated pruning blades and wind. Caught early, infectionscan be stopped in blossoms, but often travel into twigs and
A biological pesticide to extinguish fire blight
“If we are successful, Bactofruct will give participating SMEs a way to improve their competitiveness, because there are few, if any, successful products available to fight this disease.”
branches, causing shoot ends to wither into the form of a crook andblacken. Bacteria can survive the winter in dark-brown to purplishareas of killed bark, called cankers, and recommence the infectionprocess in spring, when a watery, tan bacterial ooze appears onbranches, twigs, and cankers. Exposed to air, the ooze darkens andstreaks branches or trunks. Fruits and blossoms are water-soaked.In trees, the pathogen most often moves from the infection site root-ward.According to some experts, a weak mixture of a copper fungicideapplied several times per week can reduce new infections, but thiswill not eliminate all of them and can cause browning or scarringof fruit. Infections in wood must be pruned as much as a footbelow the infected area. Pruned limbs must be burned and pruningtools cleansed in a bleach solution.
Bactofruct has already started looking for a new cure. Initialresearch by the University of Konstanz, a project research andtechnology developer (RTD) partner, has identified three strains ofBacillus species as potent suppressors of
. Theresearch team has collected many Bacillus and related, natural non-pathogenic species.The project team will perform laboratoryresearch to screen andcharacterise additionalBacillus strains.Researchers willanalyse growthof the selectedstrains, using
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