Researchers Attempt to Unravel Evolutionary Secrets of Tomato Pathogen

For decades, scientists and farmers have attempted to understand how a bacterial pathogen continues to damage tomatoes despite numerous agricultural attempts to control its spread. Pseudomonas syringae pv. tomato is the causative agent of bacterial speck disease of tomato (Solanum lycopersicum), a disease that occurs worldwide and causes severe reduction in fruit yield and quality, particularly during cold and wet springs. In the spring of 2010, for example, an outbreak in Florida and California devastated the harvest in those areas. "There is not much that can be done from a farming standpoint," said Dr. Boris Vinatzer, associate professor of plant pathology, physiology and weed science, and an affiliated faculty member with the Fralin Life Science Institute at Virginia Tech. "First, farmers try to use seed that is free of the pathogen to prevent disease outbreaks. Then, there are some disease-resistant tomato cultivars, but the pathogen has overcome this resistance by losing the gene that allowed these resistant plants to recognize it and defend themselves. For the rest, there are pesticides, but the pathogen has become resistant against them." So how exactly has the pathogen evolved to consistently evade eradication efforts? This is where science steps in, and a copy of the bacterial pathogen's game plan is crucial. Thanks to the collaborative work of Dr. Vinatzer, Virginia Bioinformatics Institute computer scientist Dr. Joao Setubal, assistant professor of statistics Dr. Scotland Leman, and their students, the genomes of several Pseudomonas syrinage pv. tomato isolates have been sequenced in order to track the bacterial pathogen's ability to overcome plant defenses and to develop methods to prevent further spread.
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