Australia: New project will boost capability to detect 'number one plant biosecurity threat'

July 30 , 2019

Australia's Hort Innovation is funding a new project aimed at building the country's capability to detect and control Xylella fastidiosa, should it ever enter the country.

The harmful bacterium has been dubbed the number one plant biosecurity threat to Australia. It is transmitted by common sap-sucking insects such as spittlebugs and sharpshooters.

The impact of Xylella overseas has been catastrophic, infecting more than 200 million citrus trees in Brazil. It has also destroyed one million olive trees in Italy and devastated the Californian grape sector, Hort Innovation said.

The pathogen - not yet present in Australia or New Zealand - can cause significant damage to many important crops. These include grapevines, olives, nuts, citrus, stone fruit, blueberries and cherries.

In fact, over 500 cultivated and uncultivated herbaceous and woody plant species are known hosts of Xylella.

A new collaborative research project managed by Hort Innovation will be led by Dr. Rachel Mann from the Victorian Department of Jobs, Precincts and Regions (JPR). It's additionally supported by Western Australian, NSW and Queensland primary industries and New Zealand's Ministry for Primary Industries.

This collaborative effort ensures labs that currently provide diagnostic capability in Australia and New Zealand are prepared.

New project to look at new detection and surveillance methods

Hort Innovation research and development manager Dr. Penny Measham said the project was looking at new methods for detection and surveillance. This is being done through the development of innovative diagnostic tools.

“Currently, detection is difficult as the pathogen has a long latent period and not all plant hosts exhibit symptoms,” she said.

“Furthermore, the different strains of X. fastidiosa, classified into subspecies, can behave like different diseases in different hosts.”

Measham said the value of subspecies identification was paramount during incursion mode.

“Along with international collaboration, the project aims to establish an Australian based X. fastidiosa genome database to assist with design and validation of X. fastidiosa subspecies specific diagnostic tools that are both rapid and accurate,” she said.

“The fast turn-around of this information could be the difference between eradication and moving to management of this devastating pest.”

Project lead, Dr Rachel Mann, said the current National Diagnostic Protocol (NDP) for Australia is for the detection and identification of Xylella. It is focussed specifically on Pierces disease.

“This project will review and adopt the world’s best practice diagnostic methods for the detection and identification of Xylella and it's subspecies, and ensure diagnosticians are trained and proficient in using the revised National Diagnostic Protocol,” she said.

“In the event of a suspect sample being identified, our state diagnostic laboratories will be the first to deal with these samples."

It is therefore essential that the capacity to handle these samples be developed and tested now - not during a potential incursion.

Mann said the adoption of the Xylella NDP would be immediate. She said the NDP will be used to screen plant material entering Australia and will also support active surveillance programs.

It will also be used during an incursion or during the detection of the exotic vector, the glassy-winged sharpshooter.

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