JGI to decode DNA of destructive plant pathogen

WALNUT CREEK, CA -- Backed by nearly $4 million in funding from three Federal agencies, researchers in California and Virginia are joining forces to learn the genetic secrets of a notorious plant pathogen that causes billions of dollars a year in damage to forests and soybean crops.

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's Joint Genome Institute (JGI) in Walnut Creek and the Virginia Bioinformatics Institute (VBI) in Blacksburg will decode and study the genomes of two species of Phytophthora, which is Greek for "plant devourer." Phytophthora is a fungus-like microbe responsible for sudden oak death syndrome, soybean root rot, and a wide variety of other destructive plant diseases, including the Irish potato famine in the 1840s.

By sequencing and comparing the DNA of the two Phytophthora genomes, the scientists hope to uncover clues to virulent diseases that are attacking 17 species of trees on the West Coast, including redwoods, big leaf maples, bay trees and Douglas fir, and causing serious damage to soybean crops in the Midwest and South.

"This is an ideal opportunity for genomics to make an important contribution to solving an enormous national problem," said JGI Director Eddy Rubin. "By sequencing and studying the gene function of this pathogen, we can accelerate the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of the infections it causes."

Phytophthora ramorum, the recently identified microbe responsible for sudden oak death, and P. sojae, which causes soybean root rot, resemble fungi but are actually Stramenopiles, a group of oomycetes or "water molds."

Phytophthora microbes resist treatment by conventional pesticides and other fungus control measures. Unless effective treatments are found, foresters are concerned that P. ramorum, which has already killed tens of thousands of trees in California and Oregon, could spread to northern red oak and pin oak forests in the Midwest and East despite quarantines restricting the mo

Contact: Charles Osolin
DOE/Joint Genome Institute

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