Friday, 6 May 2016

Research to reduce papaya diseases in the Philippines saved from a cyclone

Cyclones present an ever-present threat to lives and livelihoods in the Philippines, and can also severely disrupt agricultural research efforts. An ACIAR-funded project to increase the profitability and sustainability of papaya production in the southern Philippines and Australia suffered an early set-back when a cyclone destroyed research infrastructure and field plots. More recently, plants waiting for disease screening narrowly escaped destruction.

In the Philippines the focus of research is integrated disease management (IDM) of Bacterial Crown Rot (BCR) which is caused by bacteria of the genus Erwinia. Aspects of IDM that are being investigated include identification of Erwinia strains, disease transmission, identification of resistant strains of papaya plants, natural defence mechanisms, and in-field management.

A developing theory for the transmission of BCR is that it is spread with windblown rain between plants and that infection is facilitated by wind damage, which provides an entry point for the bacteria in previously disease-free plants. So both dwarf plants (which are likely to suffer less damage from strong winds) and those with less susceptibility to the bacteria will most likely suffer less from the disease.

Aira Waje screening papaya breeding lines for resistance to BCR disease under glass-house conditions in the Philippines. Photo: David Hall
Screening for these desirable characteristics is carried out initially under controlled conditions (Figures 1 and 2) and later in the field. Recently, a new batch of plants were ready for formal screening when a cyclone threatened. Resourceful researchers moved the plants to ‘the smallest room in the house’ (and the one least likely to be destroyed by a cyclone) and duly saved the plants for subsequent research.

Putative BCR-resistant papaya breeding lines growing in big plastic bags inside a net house. Photo: David Hall
Under the auspices of the project, Ms Aira Waje (Research Associate, University of Philippines Los BaƱos), recently visited the Queensland Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (Qld-DAF), Mareeba to gain skills in plant bacterial diagnostics. During her visit she spent time with Dr Natalie Dillon (Senior Biotechnologist) and Dr Nandita Pathania (Bacteriologist). Aira learnt various bacterial diagnostic techniques and increased her skills in bioinformatics. During her visit, Aira acquired the skills to run various online software programmes for DNA search, sequence alignment, assembly and analysis of phylogenetic relationship. The study trip allowed her to address a key project objective – to characterise the specific bacterium, Erwinia mallotivora, associated with bacterial crown rot in the Philippines.

While in Queensland, Aira also visited commercial papaya plantations to learn how a commitment to hygiene and sanitation is a prime strategy for pest and disease management.

The research is part of ACIAR project HORT/2012/113 ‘Integrated disease management strategies for the productive, profitable and sustainable production of high quality papaya fruit in the southern Philippines and Australia’ which is being conducted by Queensland’s DAF.

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