April 21, 2020, by Lexi Earl
UK Plant Health Week: A conversation with a plant pathologist
2020 is the International Year of Plant Health and April 20-27 is UK Plant Health Week. We spoke to Dr Rumiana Ray, a Crop Pathologist, about the importance of plant health, and what you can do to support keeping plants healthy.
You are a specialist in crop pathology, what does that mean?
Plant pathologists work on understanding how plant pathogens such as viruses, bacteria or fungi for example, cause diseases on plants and how can we effectively control them to minimise losses. My focus is on the protection of cultivated plants and crops, against diseases that threaten food security. Plant pathologists are interested in early disease prediction and disease epidemiology (how the environment, the host and the pathogen interact in time to explain the amount of disease).
Tell us a little about what your job entails. What sort of projects do you work on?
I specialise in understanding diseases on plant roots, stems, foliage or reproductive organs, for example grain or seeds on Cereal and Brassica crops that are caused by pathogenic fungi. Severe diseases by these pathogens can develop into epidemics associated with devastating yield, quality or safety losses. Some of these pathogens, for example the Fusarium species that infect cereal crops, produce mycotoxins that can contaminate our food with harmful effects for humans and animals. My job is to develop and integrate effective methods for plant protection, ideally before crops are infected, but during their growth and development in field. These methods may rely on a single solution or maybe integrated to include varietal resistance, chemical, biological or cultural control. Therefore my projects span from molecular to applied and are performed in the lab, growth room and in the field. My projects focus on pathogen diagnostics/disease sensing, phenotyping and understanding the mechanisms of host resistance, fungicide action and even ecological interactions between co-occurring organisms on their shared host and how these influence disease development or control.
What do we mean by ‘plant health’?
Plant health broadly refers to the normal physiological functioning of plants in the absence or under the minimised impact of physical, abiotic or biotic factors in the environment.
Why is plant health important?
Plant health is important for food security, plant diversity and our food supply. Let’s not forget that many crops are also commodities and devastating plant diseases can cause excessive economic losses, in addition to contributing to human disasters, death and people’s displacement. There are many examples in our history to give here, including the Irish famine which was caused by Phytopthora infestans infecting potatoes in Ireland and causing late potato blight. The blight epidemic resulted in more than 1.5 million people dying or emigrating from Ireland. The biggest threat to plant health thus comes from imported plant pathogens such as the potato blight pathogen which was not native to Ireland. Plant pathogens can be easily moved and spread by people or indeed other vectors such as insects. It is important that we don’t introduce aggressive new pathogens into new environments where they will thrive, especially if there is no host resistance to them. One recent example is a devasting disease caused by the bacterium Xyllela fastidiosa vectored by insects. One of the sub species of the pathogen infects olive trees in Europe, killing them and leading to billions of Euro loss. In the absence of host resistance, without EU legislations for the eradication of the pathogen, severe outbreaks can potentially change the physical, cultural and economic landscape of Mediterranean countries. Thus, it is important that people are made aware of quarantine and legislative measures imposed by governmental plant protection agencies in the world to prevent the movement and introduction of invasive plant pathogens.
FAO have declared 2020 as the International Year of Plant Health. What does this mean for you, as a scientist?
To me it means we need to raise public awareness of the effects of plant diseases and regulations on the invasion of plant pathogens and pests so that we can protect our landscape, crops and environment. We need to invest in research and development for better diagnostics and innovation into plant protection practices and technologies.
The term ‘plant health’ sounds quite scary in terms of scale, what can ordinary people do to improve plant health?
The simplest way of protecting native plants and the environment is to ensure people don’t bring back any foreign plants/seeds, vegetables or flowers when they travel, as they may also bring back pests and diseases with them. If people are not sure they can contact PHA at DEFRA to check on phytosanitary control.
How can scientists make the public more aware of plants and their needs? What role should scientists play?
We are so used to our ecological and agricultural landscape that we often take plants/crops there for granted. However, we all have a role to play to ensure that our environment is friendly towards our diverse plant species and resources. Businesses and farmers have already moved away from single measures and practices; integrated management for both pests and diseases is now promoted by industry and practiced by farmers in field. This ensures a much more sustainable way of agriculture and diversifies the plant species within our environment. The role of a scientist in plant health is to ensure that we are prepared for future plant threats by increasing our arsenal in the fight with damaging pathogens and keeping one step ahead, whether it is going to be by increasing host resistance, improved diagnostics, novel chemistry or biological control agents. A key role here will be played by scientists by making their science more accessible to the public in order to raise awareness of plant health.