Norwich boffins out to save our conkers
Kim BriscoeIt has survived bans by health and safety tsars, but now the much-loved traditional children's game of conkers is facing a threat from another source - an infectious tree disease.Kim Briscoe
It has survived bans by health and safety tsars, but now the much-loved traditional children's game of conkers is facing a threat from another source - an infectious tree disease.
However scientists in Norwich have now made a breakthrough in research which could hold the key to saving the UK's horse chestnut tree population - and the much-loved game.
The scientists at the Sainsbury Laboratory, at Norwich Research Park on the outskirts of the city, have decoded the genome of a bacterium that is threatening these trees.
The horse chestnut has become an iconic sight in Britain since its introduction in the 1500s, and children across the country eagerly collect its fruits every autumn to be used in the playground game of conkers.
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But in 2002 a new lethal disease appeared that now infects up to 70pc of trees in some areas.
Bleeding canker, caused by the bacterium Pseudomonas syringae pathovar aesculi (Pae), causes lesions which bleed like open sores and in severe cases can kill large mature trees within one to two seasons.
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'Comparing the genomes of British strains of the bacterium has shown us they are very similar and probably originated from a single introduction into the UK within the last few years,' said Dr David Studholme, who led the analysis of the DNA sequences at The Sainsbury Laboratory.
Dr Sarah Green, a tree pathologist with Forest Research which is part of the Forestry Commission, added: 'Detecting the origin of Pae is important from a biosecurity perspective.
'There has been an unprecedented rise in invasive plant diseases, possibly linked to the rise in international travel and in the global plant trade.
'We now have the first clues to the evolutionary origin of the disease and to its ability to spread so fast.
'Pae might have been accidentally introduced to Europe through importation in the plant trade. We need to prevent it being introduced to new geographical areas such as North America.'
Before the European epidemic, the only reported case of Pae was in India. A similar strain infects the Indian horse chestnut but causes only minor lesions in the leaves. The strains that emerged in Europe appear to be more aggressive and attack the woody trunk and branches.
The genome sequence will allow scientists to determine which genes might be necessary for infection of a tree host so they can be targeted to control the disease.
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