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Scientists are trying to use viruses against an aggressive plant bacterial disease

Posted December 3, 2019

The very word “virus” is enough to get you a little worried. However, these microorganisms are often harmless and sometimes can even be useful. Scientists from the University of York and Nanjing Agricultural University found that some viruses can be employed to fight the deadly Ralstonia solanacearum bacterium.

Diseased (left) and healthy (right) tomato seedlings infected by Ralstonia solanacearum. Image credit: Ville Friman/University of York

Diseased (left) and healthy (right) tomato seedlings infected by Ralstonia solanacearum. Image credit: Ville Friman/University of York

Ralstonia solanacearum is a bacterium, which affects several plants including tomatoes, potatoes and banana. In other words, it destroyed food crops, causing huge economic losses and reduced yield. And despite all our advancements in technology, there is no effective way to stop the Ralstonia solanacearum from spreading.

Some limitations are due to the very simple fact that we are dealing with food crops – you just cannot spray any kind of chemical on them, hoping that it is not going to affect the final harvest.

Ralstonia solanacearum infection on a tomato plant. This bacterium reduces yield, costing us food and profit. Image credit: Clemson University via Wikimedia (CC BY 3.0)

But now scientists found that pathogen-specific viruses called phages could be used to fight a disease that decimates some of the world’s major food crops. Researchers discovered that phages reduced the incidence of disease by up to 80 %. They need to be used in combination with other methods in order to reach their full potential, but they work pretty well. How? Well, scientists identified two ways that phages help fighting the Ralstonia solanacearum.

Firstly, of course, phages kill off the abundance of Ralstonia solanacearum bacteria. They also select for phage resistant but slow-growing pathogen genotypes. It reduces competitiveness and generally slows down the spread of the bacterium. Result – more crops are protected from this deadly infection.

Using viruses to fight bacteria may seem strange for you, but phages have been in use from a very long time. In fact, they were used in a similar application even before antibiotics were invented. They are safe and effective. Dr Ville Friman, one of the authors of the study, said: “Our results suggest that phages could be used as a precision tool to engineer the composition of rhizosphere microbiomes by selectively targeting pathogens. Furthermore, phage resistance evolution might be a lesser problem if we use phages that impose strong evolutionary trade-offs to the pathogen”.

World’s population is still growing rapidly. We need to grow more and more food to feed it. We have to improve our methods of agriculture as well as protect our food crops better. Using viruses to fight bacteria may seem a bit strange, but it may be the most progressive way to go.


Source: University of York

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