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Major funding to fight back against ash dieback

Fast track funding has been awarded to a new consortium of researchers for studying ash dieback fungus

News from Forest Research: March 2013

Forest Research’s principal pathologist, Dr Joan Webber is a key player in a new consortium of researchers awarded £2.4M of fast-track research funding from BBSRC and DEFRA for a two-year project to gather an in-depth understanding of the ash dieback fungus and provide genetic clues about some ash trees’ natural resistance to attack. Computer models will also be built to develop monitoring plans of the distribution and spread of the fungus as well as chart how the disease might progress. This knowledge will help to fight the fungus and replace lost trees with those able to survive.

The Nornex consortium (named for the three Norns who tend the ash tree of life Yggdrasil in Norse mythology) brings together tree health and forestry specialists with scientists working with state-of-the-art genetic sequencing, biological data and imaging technologies to investigate the molecular and cellular basis of interactions between the fungus and ash trees. Data from the project will be uploaded to an open-access website. This crowd-sourced, data-sharing approach will share the genetic data to exploit the expertise of plant and fungal research communities internationally.

Led by Professor Allan Downie at the John Innes Centre (JIC), the consortium includes nine partners in addition to Forest Research.

Dr Webber from FR brings extensive experience of the pathology of tree diseases to the project.  FR’s contribution will focus on how and when the spores of the fungus infect ash leaves, and the conditions that influence this process. The FR growing culture collection of the ash fungus sampled from across the UK will also be used by the project consortium for other studies.

Genome sequences of up to 30 samples of the fungus from the UK and Europe will rapidly help to acquire in-depth genetic information to shed light on the infection process. These data will reveal clues to the origins of the disease and provide genetic ‘markers’ to allow the spread of different strains to be followed. Genetic data will also provide direct insights into the nature of the fungus.

The consortium will obtain information about how the disease spreads by studying infection in climate-controlled growth facilities, tracking the fungus as it colonises the plant. This vital information will help to develop effective disease control strategies.

The project will also uncover how some ash trees can partially resist the fungus’ attack.  About 2% of Danish trees appear to ward off the disease but little information on the genetic basis for this is known. Genetic data from these trees will be compared to susceptible trees to find variations in the trees’ genetic codes. By identifying these differences, genetic makers can be developed to help breeders produce more resistant trees.