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Two years ago, at the last Triennial Conference of the European Association for Potato Research (EAPR) in Brasov, Romania, members of the Pathology Section expressed interest in holding their next meeting in Ireland and somehow I found myself agreeing that it might be possible. However, the thought of organising the meeting in Belfast more or less single-handed (my fellow potato pathologist Roy Copeland having recently retired) was daunting and led me to ‘suggest’ to my colleagues at the Teagasc Oak Park Research Centre that Carlow would be an ideal venue. So an informal organising committee which included myself and colleagues Steven Kildea, Denis Griffin and Dan Milbourne from Teagasc (the Irish Agriculture & Food Development Authority) came into being.
After an alarming time in June and July when it seemed that we might have to cancel the meeting due to lack of interest, our potato friends rallied round and as a result, the meeting took place at the Seven Oaks Hotel, Carlow, Ireland, jointly hosted by Teagasc and AFBI. The theme that we chose was ‘Potato Pests & Diseases: Old Enemies, New Threats’ focussing on the risks to the potato crop posed by changes in pest and pathogens – changes resulting from the introduction of new organisms, from selection of new strains of already endemic species and from altered behaviour associated with factors such as climate change.
The meeting was attended by just over 50 delegates from 12 countries as far afield as the USA and Japan and for part of the time we were joined by members of the Society of Irish Plant Pathologists (SIPP) for their Autumn Scientific Meeting. We had hoped to run a student paper competition aimed at publicising the EAPR to young researchers. Despite offering free registration to student presenters (funded by the EAPR) and reduced price accommodation, disappointingly only three students registered: I suspect it may be a sign of the current economic climate and the decline in the science of plant pathology.
The BSPP was publicised to delegates as a Conference Sponsor in the abstracts booklet and with a poster display – the free BSPP goodies proved very popular, particularly the pens! I found myself trying to promote the three organisations (EAPR, BSPP and SIPP) simultaneously, which was a bit confusing. The invited speakers included Jan van der Wolf from Plant Research International in The Netherlands. Jan described how his work on new variants of bacterial pathogens is helping to show why Dickeya spp. are causing increasing losses from blackleg in European seed potato production. This is of great concern to countries to which seed potatoes are exported and in a subsequent talk Leah Tsror explained the risks to potato production in Israel and their monitoring programme. Another invited speaker, Colin Fleming (AFBI) explained how AFBI research is determining the reasons for increasing nematode problems, which are not only threatening potato crops, but other important things such as golf courses and football fields!
During the meeting, delegates visited the Teagasc Crop Research Centre, Oak Park, where they were welcomed by the Director Professor Gerry Boyle and heard about the range of research conducted there. After this some delegates chose to visit Altamont Gardens (“the most romantic gardens in Ireland” according to their website) which run down to a beautiful lake and river and survive as a result of the efforts of the last owner, Corona North, who restored overrun flower-beds and woodland areas with rhododendrons, azaleas and rare trees, and bequeathed the gardens to the Irish Government on her death in 1999. Other delegates chose to opt for a different venue. . . and Jeff Peters will tell you about that. Everyone then met up at the Sha-Roe Restaurant in the village of Clonegal for a splendid dinner of traditional Irish fare.
On behalf of the organisers, I wish to thank the BSPP, the EAPR, Adgen Phytodiagnostics, BASF, Corgenix, Irish Potato Marketing and Syngenta for their generous sponsorship, without which our meeting could not have gone ahead. Our parent organisations (AFBI, Teagasc and the Irish Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) also provided support and this is gratefully acknowledged.
Agri-Food & Biosciences Institute (AFBI), Belfast
The meeting kicked off with a presentation by Dan Milbourne (Teagasc, Carlow) who gave an overview of the work by the global Potato Genome Sequencing Consortium. Next generation sequencing has enabled the consortium to finish the sequencing of the complete 840 Mb genome of potato (approx. 40k genes). Around 480 resistance gene homologues have been identified. This offers exciting prospects for shortcutting conventional breeding programmes in providing resistance to a wide range of pests and diseases.
As this was an EAPR meeting being held in Ireland, it didn’t take long before thoughts turned to potato late blight. The first morning’s session was dominated by a wide variety of findings from recent research on Phytophthora infestans. The population of P. infestans has been changing dramatically over recent years. Louise Cooke (AFBI, Belfast) presented the evidence that in Ireland genotype 13_A2 (commonly referred to as ‘Blue 13’) dominates the population. Blue 13 is both aggressive and resistant to the systemic phenylamide fungicides. An aggressive A1 genotype ‘Pink 6’ is increasing in frequency. According to Stuart Carnegie (SASA) this is a similar situation to that found in British potato crops. The concern is that with genotypes of the two mating types A1 and A2 co-existing in significant levels, there is a real danger that sexual recombination could take place allowing new variants of the pathogen to emerge. The next session dealt with potato diseases caused by bacteria. Chief amongst these is a recently identified pathogen tentatively named ‘Dickeya solani‘. Gillian Young (AFBI) described how this bacterium has emerged as a major threat to potato production in Europe. Dickeya solani causes a stem disease called ‘blackleg’ and soft rot in tubers that is similar to symptoms caused by other bacterial pathogens more commonly associated with potato disease Pectobacterium atrosepticum and Dickeya dianthicola. However, D. solani is a more aggressive pathogen than those other bacterial pathogens. A survey is underway to monitor for the presence of D. solani in Northern Ireland. John Elphinstone (the Food and Environment Research Agency, Fera) presented work that has been carried out by Fera, Cambridge University Farms and SAC on common scab (caused by Streptomyces species). Supplying irrigation to the potato crop during early tuber development reduces levels of the blemish disease. Parallel studies at Fera using Next Generation Sequencing to investigate the possible role of antagonists in suppressing common scab, have identified a number of bacteria that increase in number as a response to irrigation. It will be interesting to see if a direct link between irrigation, ‘antagonists’ and common scab control can be proved.
We then moved on to the subject of fungal diseases of potatoes. A wide range of pathogens were presented. Gary Secor (North Dakota State University) gave an overview of a Fusarium that is not normally thought of as a potato pathogen, F. graminearum. This pathogen was found in 42% of tubers showing dry rot symptoms in North Dakota and is thought to be associated with a recently introduced harvesting method, whereby vines are not killed prior to crop lifting. This talk was followed by two presentations on Alternaria solani, a pathogen that is fairly well established in the US but is emerging as a problem in European crops. This was reflected in the presentations from Phil Wharton (University of Idaho) and Jan Spoelder (Hilbrands laboratory for Soil Diseases, The Netherlands). Jan’s presentation focused on determining what causes alternaria-like symptoms; Phil concentrated on fungicide resistance issues emerging in American crops.
It may seem strange to some, but potatoes are increasingly being bought on the basis of their appearance. This has meant that blemish diseases, which can downgrade the value of a crop, are becoming more important as subjects for research. It was no surprise that a number of presentations covered fungal pathogens that cause blemishes. Colletotrichum coccodes causes an important blemish disease, black dot, on crops grown in Europe and elsewhere. However, in North America, the pathogen is also capable of producing a damaging foliar disease. Neil Gudmestad (North Dakota State University) discussed work being carried out by North Dakota University which shows that there is a high degree of genetic diversity within C. coccodes populations and suggests differences between US and European isolates. Glyn Harper (Sutton Bridge Crop Storage Research, UK) presented work done jointly between SBCSR and Fera on the development of real-time PCR to predict the risk of skin spot (caused by Polyscytalum pustulans). Thanks to a travel fund awarded by the BSPP, I was able to present the work of my team at Fera (as well as collaboration from SCRI and SAC) to show that Rhizoctonia solani AG3 is sparsely distributed in soil prior to planting potatoes but is found in patches of approximately 2 ha area after cultivation. This suggests that the pathogen is predominantly borne on infected planting material.
After close of business on the second day, an excursion was arranged by the conference organisers. The delegates were split into two groups. Louise has described the excursion to the Altamont Gardens, I (and I must say many others, particularly those from the US) chose to go on the Irish cultural tour (see picture). This was a wonderful opportunity to soak up the delights that a typical Irish pub had to offer.
The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera)