It's that time of year to see some drama in avocado orchards. Once healthy-looking trees can suddenly turn brown in a weekend and all the surrounding trees still look fine. And it can be quite common in some years along the coast. The winter weather will have mild, cool even rainy days and then suddenly there's one of those 97 deg days and the tree goes down,
The entire tree or only one or several branches wilt suddenly when affected by Verticillium wilt. Leaves turn brown and die, but the dead leaves usually remain on the tree for several months. Brown to gray-brown streaks are visible in the xylem of the branches or roots when the bark is removed. Sometimes the streaking is visible in the branches, but often it is found at the base of the trunk.
Trees with Verticillium wilt often send out new, vigorous shoots within a few months after the initial wilting. If well cared for, affected trees often recover completely with no reoccurrence of the disease. However, not all trees survive an infection and disease symptoms sometimes reoccur after an apparent recovery.
The fungal pathogen Verticillium dahliae infects many hosts, including various berry and flower crops, cotton, eggplant, olive, pepper, stone fruit trees, strawberry, and tomato. Verticillium wilt is present throughout the state but is less common in avocado than root rot and canker diseases. Verticillium dahliae persists for years as microsclerotia in soil. Microsclerotia spread in infested organic matter and soil that is moved. The fungus infects through feeder roots, and then moves up in the water-conducting xylem system, restricting or preventing water movement to foliage from the roots.
No known methods are effective in curing infected trees. Trees often recover completely and display no further symptoms, even though they are still infected. After dieback ceases and new growth begins, prune off dead branches. Provide optimal irrigation and modest fertilization to promote new growth. If a tree dies from Verticillium, remove it. But give it a chance, there's a good chance it will recover.
In areas where V. dahliae is known to occur, plant Mexican rootstocks instead of the more Verticillium-susceptible Guatemalan rootstocks. Do not plant avocado on land where crops susceptible to Verticillium wilt have previously grown. Do not interplant avocado with other hosts of Verticillium, which are listed in publications such as Plants Resistant or Susceptible to Verticillium Wilt (PDF). Even if they have recovered, do not use trees infected with Verticillium wilt as a source of budwood or seed.
Like most of us, trees don't want to be eaten alive.
To prevent this gruesome fate, they developed extremely tough cell walls around 400 million years ago. For millions of years, nothing could break down lignin, the strongest substance in those cell walls. When a tree died, it just sank into the swamp where it grew. When the fossil record started showing trees breaking down around 300 million years ago, most scientists assumed it was because the ubiquitous swamps of the time were drying up.
But biologist David Hibbett at Clark University suspected that wasn't the whole story. An alternative theory from researcher Jennifer Robinson intrigued him. She theorized that instead of ecosystem change alone, something else played a major role - something evolving the ability to break down lignin. Through evolutionary biology research supported by the Department of Energy's (DOE) Office of Science, Hibbett and his team confirmed her theory. They found that, just as she predicted, a group of fungi known as "white rot fungi" evolved the ability to break down lignin approximately the same time that coal formation drastically decreased. His research illustrated just how essential white rot fungi were to Earth's evolution.
Fungi are still indispensable. The short-order cooks of the natural world, they have an unheralded job making nutrients accessible to the rest of us. Just like cooking spinach makes it easier to digest, some fungi can break down plant cell walls, including lignin. That makes it easier for other organisms to use the carbon that is in those cell walls.
"We all live in the digestive tract of fungi," said Scott Baker, a biologist at DOE's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. If we weren't surrounded by fungi that decay dead plant material, it would be much harder for plants to obtain the nutrients they need.
To understand fungi's role in the ecosystem and support biofuels research, scientists supported by DOE's Office of Science are studying how fungi have evolved to decompose wood and other plants.
The Special Skills of Fungi
Fungi face a tough task. Trees' cell walls contain lignin, which holds up trees and helps them resist rotting. Without lignin, California redwoods and Amazonian kapoks wouldn't be able to soar hundreds of feet into the air. Trees' cell walls also include cellulose, a similar compound that is more easily digested but still difficult to break down into simple sugars.
By co-evolving with trees, fungi managed to get around those defenses. Fungi are the only major organism that can break down or significantly modify lignin. They're also much better at breaking down cellulose than most other organisms.
In fact, fungi are even better at it than people and the machines we've developed. The bioenergy industry can't yet efficiently and affordably break down lignin, which is needed to transform non-food plants such as poplar trees into biofuels. Most current industrial processes burn the lignin or treat it with expensive and inefficient chemicals. Learning how fungi break down lignin and cellulose could make these processes more affordable and sustainable.
Tracing the Fungal Family Tree
While fungi live almost everywhere on Earth, advances in genetic and protein analysis now allow us to see how these short-order cooks work in their kitchen. Scientists can sample a fungus in the wild and analyze its genetic makeup in the laboratory.
By comparing genes in different types of fungi and how those fungi are evolutionarily related to each other, scientists can trace which genes fungi have gained or lost over time. They can also examine which genes an individual fungus has turned "on" or "off" at any one time.
By identifying a fungus's genes and the proteins it produces, scientists can match up which genes code for which proteins. A number of projects seeking to do this tap the resources of the Joint Genome Institute (JGI) and the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), both Office of Science user facilities.
Understanding the Rot
Just as different chefs use different techniques, fungi have a variety of ways to break down lignin, cellulose, and other parts of wood's cell walls.
Although fungi appeared millions of years earlier, the group of fungi known as white rot was the first type to break down lignin. That group is still a major player, leaving wood flaky and bleached-looking in the forest.
"White rot is amazing," said Hibbett.
To break down lignin, white rot fungi use strong enzymes, proteins that speed up chemical reactions. These enzymes split many of lignin's chemical bonds, turning it into simple sugars and releasing carbon dioxide into the air. White rot is still better at rending lignin than any other type of fungus.
Compared to white rot's powerful effects, the scientific community long thought the group known as brown rot fungi was weak. That's because brown rot fungi can't fully break down lignin.
Recalling his college classes in the 1980s, Barry Goodell, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst said, "Teachers at the time considered them these poor little things that were primitive."
Never underestimate a fungus. Even though brown rot fungi make up only 6 percent of the species that break down wood, they decompose 80 percent of the world's pine and other conifers. As scientists working with JGI in 2009 discovered, brown rot wasn't primitive compared to white rot. In fact, brown rot actually evolved from early white rot fungi. As the brown rot species evolved, they actually lost genes that code for lignin-destroying enzymes.
Like good cooks adjusting to a new kitchen, evolution led brown rot fungi to find a better way. Instead of unleashing the brute force of energy-intensive enzymes alone, they supplemented that enzyme action with the more efficient "chelator-mediated Fenton reaction" (CMF) process. This process breaks down wood cell walls by producing hydrogen peroxide and other chemicals. These chemicals react with iron naturally in the environment to break down the wood. Instead of fully breaking down the lignin, this process modifies it just enough for the fungus to reach the other chemicals in the cell wall.
There was just one problem with this discovery. In theory, the CMF chemical reaction is so strong it should break down both the fungus and the enzymes it relies on. "It would end up obliterating itself," said Jonathan Schilling, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota.
Scientists' main theory was that the fungus created a physical barrier between the reaction and the enzymes. To test that idea, Schilling and his team grew a brown rot fungus on very thin pieces of wood. As they watched the fungus work its way through the wood, they saw that the fungus was breaking up the process not in space, but in time. First, it expressed genes to produce the corrosive reaction. Two days later, it expressed genes to create enzymes. Considering fungi can take years or even decades to break down a log, 48 hours is a blip in time.
Scientists are still trying to figure out how much of a role the CMF process plays. Schilling and like-minded researchers think enzymes are still a major part of the process, while Goodell's research suggests that CMF reactions do most of the work. Goodell's team reported that CMF reactions could liquefy as much as 75 percent of a piece of pine wood.
Either way, the CMF process offers a great deal of potential for biorefineries. Using brown rot fungi's pretreatment could allow industry to use fewer expensive, energy-intensive enzymes.
A Close Collaboration
Not all fungi stand alone. Many types live in symbiosis with animals, as the fungus and animal rely on each other for essential services.
Partnerships with Rumens
Cows and other animals that eat grass depend on gut fungi and other microorganisms to help break down lignin, cellulose, and other materials in wood's cell walls. While fungi only make up 8 percent of the gut microbes, they break down 50 percent of the biomass.
To figure out which enzymes the gut fungi produce, Michelle O'Malley and her team at the University of California, Santa Barbara grew several species of gut fungi on lignocellulose . They then fed them simple sugars. As the fungi "ate" the simple sugars, they stopped the hard work of breaking down the cell walls, like opting for take-out rather than cooking at home.
Depending on the food source, fungi "turned off" certain genes and shifted which enzymes they were producing. Scientists found that these fungi produced hundreds more enzymes than fungi used in industry can. They also discovered that the enzymes worked together to be even more effective than industrial processes currently are.
"That was a huge diversity in enzymes that we had never seen," said O'Malley.
O'Malley's recent research shows that industry may be able to produce biofuels even more effectively by connecting groups of enzymes like those produced by gut fungi .
Termites as Fungus Farmers
Some fungi work outside the guts of animals, like those that partner with termites. Tropical termites are far more effective at breaking down wood than animals that eat grass or leaves, both of which are far easier to digest. Young termites first mix fungal spores with the wood in their own stomachs, then poop it out in a protected chamber. After 45 days of fungal decomposition, older termites eat this mix. By the end, the wood is almost completely digested.
"The cultivation of fungus for food [by termites] is one of the most remarkable forms of symbiosis on the planet," said Cameron Currie, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and researcher with the DOE's Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center.
Scientists assumed that the majority of the decomposition occurred outside of the gut, discounting the work of the younger termites. But Hongjie Li, a biologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, wondered if younger insects deserved more credit. He found that young workers' guts break down much of the lignin. In addition, the fungi involved don't use any of the typical enzymes white or brown rot fungi produce. Because the fungi and gut microbiota associated with termites have evolved more recently, this discovery may open the door to new innovations.
From the Lab to the Manufacturing Floor
From the forest floor to termite mounds, fungal decomposition could provide new tools for biofuels production. One route is for industry to directly produce the fungal and associated microbiota's enzymes and other chemicals. When they analyzed termite-fungi systems, scientists found hundreds of unique enzymes.
"We're trying to dig into the genes to discover some super enzyme to move into the industry level," said Li.
A more promising route may be for companies to transfer the genes that code for these enzymes into organisms they can already cultivate, like yeast or E. coli. An even more radical but potentially fruitful route is for industry to mimic natural fungal communities.
For millions of years, fungi have toiled as short-order cooks to break down wood and other plants. With a new understanding of their abilities, scientists are helping us comprehend how essential they are to Earth's past and future.
PULLMAN, Wash. Soil pathogen testing - critical to farming, but painstakingly slow and expensive - will soon be done accurately, quickly, inexpensively and onsite, thanks to research that Washington State University scientists plant pathologists are sharing.
As the name implies, these tests detect disease-causing pathogens in the soil that can severely devastate crops.
Until now, the tests have required large, expensive equipment or lab tests that take weeks.
The soil pathogen analysis process is based on polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests that are very specific and sensitive and only possible in a laboratory.
The new methods, designed by WSU plant pathologists, are not only portable and fast, but utilize testing materials easily available to the public. A paper by the researchers lists all the equipment and materials required to construct the device, plus instructions on how to put it all together and conduct soil tests.
Responding to growers needs
"We've heard from many growers that the time it takes to obtain results from soil samples sent to a lab is too long," said Kiwamu Tanaka, assistant professor in WSU's Department of Plant Pathology. "The results come back too late to be helpful. But if they can get results on site, they could make informed decisions about treatments or management changes before they even plant their crop."
Some diseases from soil pathogens may not be visible until weeks after the crop has sprouted, Tanaka said. That could be too late to treat the disease or could force farmers to use more treatments.
WSU graduate student Joseph DeShields, a first author on the paper, said it took about six months of work to get their device to work in the field. It relies on magnets to capture pathogens' DNA from the soil.
"It turns out, it's really hard to separate and purify genetic material from soil because soil contains so much material for PCR tests," said DeShields "So we were thrilled when we made that breakthrough."
Rachel Bomberger is a WSU plant diagnostician who helped with the concepts of the machine testing. She said she's impressed by what Tanaka and the team accomplished.
"We removed a huge stumbling block when it comes to soil testing," said Bomberger, one of the co-authors on the paper. "We found the missing piece that makes the testing systems work in the field without expensive lab equipment or testing materials."
The system was tested on potato fields around eastern Washington, Tanaka said, but it will work on soil anywhere in the world.
"It's a really versatile method," he said. "You could use it for nationwide pathogen mapping or look at the distribution of pathogens around the country. We started small, but this could have huge implications for testing soil health and disease."
Tanaka said it was important for this discovery to be available in an open-access video journal.
"We're always concerned about helping every grower and the industry as a whole," Tanaka said. "We want everybody to look at this and use it, if they think they'll benefit from it."
The results were published in the Journal of Visualized Experiments, an open-access journal that includes a video showing how to assemble and used the system and a full list of materials needed to use their method.
This research is supported by the Northwest Potato Research Consortium and the Washington State Department of Agriculture - Specialty Crop Block Grant Program.
See the video here:
And the article here:
The following is the abstract of a recent article highlighting the occurrence of the invasive shot hole borer that is found in California and described in our blog site:
Invasive species are a problem world-wide and this is an example of how invasives can arrive in multiple countries at the same time and/or how possibly they might move from somewhere like California to another far away country like South Africa. People are the usual agents for carrying these pests around the world.
The polyphagous shot hole borer (PSHB) and its fungal symbiontFusarium euwallaceae: a new invasion in South Africa
The polyphagous shot hole borer (PSHB), an ambrosia beetle (Coleoptera: Curculeonidae: Scolytinae) native to Asia, together with its fungal symbiont Fusarium euwallaceae, has emerged as an important invasive pest killing avocado and other trees in Israel and the United States. The PSHB is one of three cryptic species in the Euwallacea fornicatusspecies complex, the taxonomy of which remains to be resolved. The surge in the global spread of invasive forest pests such as the PSHB has led to the development of programs utilizing sentinel tree plantings to record new host-pest interactions. During routine surveys of tree health in botanical gardens of South Africa undertaken as part of a sentinel project, an ambrosia beetle/fungal associate was detected damaging Platanus x acerifolia(London Plane) in the KwaZulu-Natal National Botanical Gardens, Pietermaritzburg.
Identification of the beetle by sequencing part of the mitochondrial cytochrome oxidase c subunit 1 (COI) gene confirmed its identity as PSHB, and specifically one of the invasive haplotypes of the beetle. The associated fungus F. euwallaceaewas identified based on phylogenetic analysis of elongation factor (EF 1-α) sequences. Koch's postulates have confirmed the pathogenicity of fungal isolates toP. x acerifolia. This is the first report of PSHB and its fungal symbiont causing Fusarium dieback in South Africa. This report also represents the first verified case of a damaging invasive forest pest detected in a sentinel planting project, highlighting the importance of such studies. Given the potential impact these species present to urban trees, native biodiversity and agriculture, both the PSHB and its fungal symbiont should be included in invasive species regulations in South Africa.
The full paper is at:
Photo: Infected sycamore which is related to London plane tree.
No rain for several years may have let citrus growers think that brown rot control is not important. But it still is and it's just coming out after a few inches of rain earlier this January. This is not the brown rot of stone fruits caused by Monilina fungus but a pathogen, completely different – Phytophthora spp.
Symptoms appear primarily on mature or nearly mature fruit. Initially, the firm, leathery lesions sometimes have a water-soaked appearance. Lesions are tan to olive brown, have a pungent odor, and may turn soft from secondary infections. Infected fruit eventually drop. Occasionally, twigs, leaves, and blossoms are infected, turning brown and dying.
Brown rot is caused by multiple species of Phytophthora when conditions are cool and wet. Brown rot develops mainly on fruit growing near the ground when Phytophthora spores from the soil are splashed onto the tree skirts during rainstorms; infections develop under continued wet conditions. Fruit in the early stage of the disease may go unnoticed at harvest and infect other fruit during storage.
Brown rot management primarily relies on prevention. Pruning tree skirts 24 or more inches above the ground can significantly reduce brown rot.
One spray of copper fungicide between October and December before or just after the first rain may provide protection throughout the wet season. When rainfall is excessive, you may have to repeat the spray in January or February. Spray the skirts to about 4 feet above ground. Spraying the ground underneath the trees also reduces brown rot infections. In addition to copper, other products effective against brown rot include the phosphonate and phenylamide fungicides. Phosphonates are applied as foliar and fruit or soil treatments, whereas phenylamides are applied as soil treatments for brown rot control. For soil applications, microsprinkler irrigation applications may be used.
Recently, oxathiapiprolin (Orondis®) was registered for use on citrus in California. Orondis® is an outstanding alternative for Phytophthora control that may be applied as chemigation or foliar application. However, foliar applications are preferred for preventing brown rot.
Postharvest Packinghouse Treatments to Prevent Fruit Decay
Potassium phosphite fungicides may be applied in aqueous dilutions to fruit alone or in combination with other postharvest fungicide treatments to manage nonvisible infections that occurred before harvest or protect fruit from brown rot infection after harvest during storage, distribution, and marketing. Use high-volume flooder or dip treatments for maximum coverage of fruit. Heated (125–136°F) fungicide solutions optimize performance of the potassium phosphite treatment.
More citrus brown rot information is at:
Packers should check the Global MRL Database for all country MRLs at https://globalmrl.com/db#pesticides/query.
Photos of brown rot on different citrus varieties - lemon, mandarin, orange