BSPP News Autumn 1999 - Online Edition

The Newsletter of the British Society for Plant Pathology
Number 35, Autumn 1999

Contents of BSPP Newsletter 35

Editorial - How will the public stop worrying and learn to love GM food?

In January next year, BSPP launches its new  journal, Molecular Plant Pathology. Its pages will report ground-breaking progress in understanding how plants interact  with pathogens. But will these discoveries ever be put to practical use in controlling diseases? Or will public  opposition to genetically manipulated crops mean that inventions which could help farmers to grow food with fewer  pesticides will stay on the laboratory shelf?

In Britain, public opinion has hardened against GM technology to the point of paranoia. In response to public fears, all  the big supermarket chains are withdrawing GM ingredients. Hostility is also increasing towards scientists working on GM crops. The public used to think of botanists (if they thought of them at all) as harmless hybrids  of a vegetarian Doctor Doolittle, talking harmlessly to the plants, with the benevolent King of Brobdingnag, who told Gulliver that "whoever could make two ears of corn grow where only one grew  before would do more essential service than the whole race of politicians put together". Now, plant scientists are seen as Doctor Strangeloves, plotting to destroy the safety of food in order to gratify their own egos.

How did the GM community foul up so badly? More to  the point, how can we win back public confidence? Let's start where it all went wrong. There was almost no concern at all in Britain about GM food until  the Monsanto company imported GM soyabeans into Europe, mixed with non-GM beans. This happened shortly after Britain's worst ever food scare, that mad cow disease might be transmissible to humans. Scientists had nothing to do with the spread of BSE, but the two events became linked in the public imagination, in the sense that people in white coats were believed to be mucking about with good, wholesome food.

The subsequent claim by Monsanto - whether right or wrong - that it was  impossible to label consignments of soya as possibly coming from GM crops was surely one of the great marketing blunders of all time. How could consumers possibly be expected to gain confidence in a product, about which they were already suspicious, if they had no mean of knowing whether food contained it or not?

Of course, Monsanto is not solely responsible for  the debacle. Own goals by many other organisations have compounded the problem, but the impression that consumers are going to lose control of the food they buy is the biggest single factor in causing public hostility to GM technology. (The fact that consumers have no control at all over the pesticides currently used on crops is beside the point.)

Has Monsanto learnt the lesson that accurate,  helpful labelling is vital to regaining public confidence? I would be delighted if it had but sadly, I fear it has not. In March this year, the Observer reported that an official in the U.S.A.'s Food and Drug Administration had promulgated a regulation to make it illegal to label milk or beef as coming from cows treated with bovine somatotropin (BST), a growth hormone which is damaging to cows' health. The implication was that consumers could then not buy products known not to come from BST-treated cows. The Observer stated that that official had only recently moved to the FDA from a law firm which represented Monsanto. No doubt, Monsanto had had no  influence on the regulatory process, but one can readily understand public suspicion that the U.S. government was acting to defend the interests of Monsanto, not those of consumers.

So, what is to be done? The first thing is that industry must be seen to positively welcome the labelling of food as coming from GM crops or not. The second is that the  revolving door which moves officials between companies and government, especially in the U.S.A., must shut tight, so that the  public can trust government regulations as being independent and even-handed. A free market is about giving consumers the right to choose between alternative products, on the basis of accurate information and competititive prices. It is not about companies  manipulating government regulations (or being thought by the public to do so) in order to increase their market share.

Finally - and here we return to plant pathology -  GM technology must provide products that will benefit the public and the environment. There is no reason to expect the public to support GM crops  if they believe that the only beneficiaries of the new technology are sales  of a company's herbicides. We need more good news stories about GM crops if the industry in Britain is not to fall into oblivion. Let's  hope that MolecularPlant Pathology will provide them.

James Brown


Apology (from Mr Gates...?)

The slim-line appearance of this issue of BSPP News  is the not the result of a deliberate policy. It's because a computer crash, the day  before this issue was due to go to the printers, wiped out several articles and  gratuitously rearranged several others.

In order to rescue this issue of BSPP News in time  for it to be circulated with the October 1999 issue of Plant Pathology, a considerable amount of material has had to be omitted.  This includes reports on recent conferences and other events from members who have received grants from  the Travel Fund, All articles not included in this issue will be printed in  the Spring 2000 issue (no. 36) of BSPP News.

The Editor


New Members of BSPP

We warmly welcome the following new members, who have recently  joined BSPP.

Dr Ian Barker, from CSL, York, whose interests include molecular diagnostics for plant pathogens.

Ms Sally Barnes, a postgraduate student at University of Reading.

Dr Laurence V Bindschedler, based at the University of Bath, whose interests include molecular biology of fungal pathogens of cereal crops.

Miss Jane R Byrne, a postgraduate student at HRI, researching the molecular genetics of biotrophic fungal pathogens of vegetable crops and wild plants.

Dr Godfrey Chongo, from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Saskatchewan.

Dr P Chowdappa, from the CPCRI Regional Station in Vittal, India whose interests include molecular biology of Phytophthora.

Mr Andrew Clarke, a postgraduate in the Dept of Biological & Biomedical Sciences at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

Miss Carla X Colque, a postgraduate student at Imperial College, researching the molecular biology of Pseudomonas in potato.

Dr Radhika Deskian from the Department of Biological and Biomedical Sciences at the University of the West of England, Bristol.

Mr Thomas Dodd, a postgraduate student from the University of Sheffield, working on the  impact of Septoria and Stagonospora on photosynthetic metabolism.

Miss Clare L Edwards, a postgraduate student from the University of Bristol, working on  transgenic resistance to plant viruses.

Mrs Akram Hamdollah-Zaden, a postgraduate student at the University of Bristol.

Dr Sonia Hamza, from the Genetics Laboratory of the National Institute for Agronomy in Tunisia

Mrs Susan J Irvine, from the Scottish Agricultural Science Agency, working on fungal and viral pathogens of soft and top fruit.

Mr Oliver GG Knox, a postgraduate student at SAC, Aberdeen, working on the molecular genetics of Phytophthora and other necrotrophic fungi.

Dr Gary Loake, from the Institute of Molecular Biology at the University of Edinburgh.

Miss Marian McEwan, from the Scottish Agricultural Science Agency, working on molecular diagnostics and seed pathology.

Mr Prashant K Mishra, a postgraduate student at the University of Reading.

Dr Ethel Monda, from Kenyata University, Kenya, whose interests include angular leaf spots of beans.

Mr Vince Mulholland, from the Scottish Agricultural Science Agency, whose interests include molecular diagnostics.

Mr Stoyan R Pirgozliev, a postgraduate student at Harper Adams University College.

Miss Katherine L Pixton, a postgraduate student at the University of Birmingham, researching the molecular biology of biotrophic fungal pathogens of beans.

Ms Melodie Putnam, from the Department of Botany & Plant Health, Oregon State University, USA.

Courtney K Solberg, a postgraduate from Ames, Iowa, USA working on Puccina coronata in oats.

Dr K P Srivastava, from the Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, India, whose interests include cotton leafroll virus.

Dr Jill R Thompson, a Professional Research Associate in the Department of Plant Sciences at  The University of Saskatoon, Canada.

Dr Christopher Thornton, from the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Exeter.

Miss Sara Turner, a postgraduate student from University of Exeter.

Dr Leonardo Varvaro, from the University della Tuscia, Italy.

Miss Gillian Wallace, a postgraduate student from Queens University, Belfast.

Miss Sarah J Winson, a postgraduate student at Harper Adams University College.

Mr Henry Wood, a postgraduate student at Nottingham University, researching the genetics of eyespot in cereal crops.


New Disease Reports

The last millenium brought us world-wide epidemics  of potato blight, coffee rust and Dutch elm disease. What does the next millenium have in store?  Whatever it might be, the first record of it might be in a new BSPP publication, New Disease Reports.

Since the demise of the "New or Unusual Records" section of Plant Pathology, there has been little opportunity to report new disease situations. Over the past year, discussions have taken place between BSPP and the Association of Applied Biologists  Virology Group to discuss an on-line replacement for New or Unusual Records.

BSPP plans to launch a new publication, to be called New Disease Reports, in December 1999 at the BSPP Presidential Meeting.The emphasis of New Disease Reports will be on rapid, on-line reporting of new disease situations on a global level. An annual hard copy supplement to Plant Pathology is also planned.

The Senior Editor of New Disease Reports is Dr Claire Sansford, who manages the plant pathology aspects of Pest Risk Assessment at the Central Science Laboratory in Sand Hutton. Staff of CSL and of CAB International, with many years experience between them  of identifying all kinds of diseases and pathogens, are prominent on the editorial board.

New Disease Reports will encompass

new hosts for known plant  pathogens

new pathological races for known plant pathogens

new symptoms or damage for known plant pathogens

new geographical location reports for known plant pathogens

significant outbreaks of known diseases

new disease symptoms for as yet undescribed or partly-described plant pathogens (evidence of the presence of an organism in association  with symptoms which are reproduced on reinoculation of healthy hosts using Koch's  postulates).

The main objectives of New Disease Reports are

i) to provide a mechanism for rapid on-line reporting of outbreaks (as described above) of plant pathogens on a global scale,

ii) to provide a repository for observations of  the sort important to diagnosticians, field advisers, researchers and plant health policy makers; and

iii) to encourage condensed reporting of disease observations.

Accepted reports will be placed on a web page on the BSPP web site with links to the AAB Web site. In addition, an annual hard copy will be published as an annual supplement to Plant Pathology. It is expected that the first such supplement will be published in December 2000.

Reports to be considered for publication in New Disease Reports will be submitted electronically. The aim is for rapid publication on the internet, with the whole process of reviewing, editing and publishing completed (hopefully) within a month for an acceptable report. Instructions for authors will be available on the BSPP web site in due course.

Progress in the development of New Disease Reports will be described given in the next issue of BSPP News.

From the beginning of this year, Plant Pathology has had a new, eye-catching cover design, with a  colour photo in the panel beneath the title. The picture is different for each issue and is usually be relevant to one of the  papers included in that issue. Authors who submit papers to Plant Pathology are encouraged to send the Senior Editor  attractive colour pictures which could be considered for use on the front cover.

Mike Jeger: BSPP President for 1999

Mike Jeger was born in south Northamtonshire on 2  May 1945 just before Victory-in-Europe day. His childhood was spent in a remembered rural idyll with freedom to roam  from dawn to dusk, except when school intervened (often it did not!) or the ire of local farmers was  incurred by some misdemeanor. In his early years he built up a totally unschooled knowledge of local fauna and flora  (often in ways that would now be considered politically incorrect) that survived the worst excesses of  subsequent education and modern intensive agriculture. He attended Magdalene College School in Brackley, then a  Direct Grant Grammer School, but the association was not to both parties advantage. He left at 15 with no qualifications and few prospects, but an optimism for life that was fully tested during the decade now referred to  knowingly as `the sixties'- of which nothing will be said here. He married, Vanessa, in 1968 with three, now grown-up, children who have followed careers thus far in academic librarianship, journalism and pub management.

In 1971 he registered for a part-time degree with the Open University in its inaugural year. Because of its then unique credit structure he was able to devote equal time to both biological and mathematical courses, a combination which seemed to suit both his temperament and aspirations. He graduated with an upper second class degree at the end of 1975. He particularly enjoyed the Ecology courses then on offer and was persuaded of the contribution that theory and quantitative methods can make to ecological thought. In October that year he commenced an M.Sc. in Biological Computation at York University, which included a project modelling the growth of mycorrhizal  systems in relation to phosphate uptake, under the supervison of  Alistair Fitter. During his year at York he was first aware of contemporary developments in plant disease epidemiology, notably represented in the book edited by Jurgen Kranz on "Epidemics of Plant  Diseases", published by Springer-Verlag. It was directly a consequence of this book that led him to Ph.D. studies in plant pathology at University College Wales, Aberystwyth, under the supervision of Gareth Jones and Ellis Griffiths. The topic of his research arose from the work on the effects of crop multilines on plant disease epidemics, notably by Browning in Iowa but also by others in Australia, The Netherlands and elsewhere. In 1976, Wolfe and Barrett had started their influential collaboration on describing and predicting the outcome  of using varietal mixtures against barley powdery mildew, using a combined experimental and modelling approach. Most of the work on multilines, varietal mixtures and other forms of crop heterogeneity demonstrated reductions in diseases caused by airborne specialized pathogens by comparison with pure stand performance. There were experimental problems however due to the biotrophy and air dispersal of the rusts and powdery mildews.

At Aberystwyth he worked experimentally with the splash-dispersed and relatively unspecialized pathogens, Septoria nodorum and tritici and Rhynchosporium secalis. The questions were: can a disease reduction, rigorously  defined, occur in varietal mixtures differing quantitatively in resistance to  these pathogens; and can this reduction be predicted from epidemiological theory? The answer to the first question was yes, benefit can occur, but  would often not be noticed at low severity levels. Theoretically it  turned out that the outcome in mixtures depended on the magnitude of differences in components of resistance between varieties;  if these were negatively correlated there could actually be an increase in disease using mixtures. This last point has never been rigorously tested  experimentally although it could explain some of the conflicting reports  of neutral and/or negative effects of using varietal mixtures. The realization that theoretical and experimental approaches can come together and be mutually re-inforcing is an abiding one that has  influenced the direction of his research ever since.

Following his Ph.D., he joined the then East  Malling Research Station in Kent to work on the epidemiology and management of foliar diseases of top fruit with Denis Butt. This was again an influential  part of his professional development. Itn 1978 the Station Director was Peter Posnette (a virologist), the Head of Crop Protection was Jesse Crosse (a bacteriologist), and the Head of Plant Pathology was Phillip Talboys (a mycologist) - each of whom had major international  reputations. The Station was at an apex both in terms of manpower and scientific reputation. The storm clouds of changing government policy had yet to gather. The ability, or so it seemed to him, to develop ideas and experimental programmes in epidemiology beyond the rigid confines of  project specification, implementation and reporting was a  luxury that is available to few nowadays. He also learned that, given an appropriate field resource, epidemiological research can be relatively inexpensive to carry out - certainly in the development of theory - and  this is one lesson that has remained with him. During his time at East Malling some notable collaborations were formed in apple scab management especially with Bill MacHardy of the University of New Hampshire who has since written the major treatise on this disease, published by APS. In terms of theory development he was able to analyse and extend the somewhat idiosyncratic approaches taken by Vanderplank, and show that plant disease epidemiology could benefit considerably by the types of approaches taken in human/animal epidemiology despite obvious differences in the subjects involved.

In 1983, before the rain fell, he took a position as Associate Professor of Plant Pathology at Texas A&M University to develop a programme on the epidemiology of soil-borne diseases, especially Phymatotrichum root rot of cotton and other dicotyledonous plants. This is almost a unique fungal pathogen, which causes severe crop losses in the southwestern USA and northern Mexico, especially in highly-alkaline clay soils, but is unreported elsewhere in  the world. It has many features of mycological interest such as the typical differentiated strands which grow extensively through soil under conducive conditions and form a major means of dispersal. The fungus was of some interest to Denis Garrett and was used to illustrate principles relating to pathogenic root-infecting fungi in his various writings.

In collaboration with Charles Kenerley and others  the biotic and abiotic influences on the spatial and temporal dynamics of root rot epidemics were described and analysed in what has been a continuing collaboration. While at Texas he formed other collaborations especially with the nematologist James Starr which resulted in a series of publications on modelling the overwintering of Meloidogyne spp, and nematode x Fusarium interactions. The ease with which workers from different disciplinary backgrounds and specialisms seem to be able to work together in the US is a lesson that still has to be  learnt in many European institutions. Theoretical work also continued, in particular an early analysis of the effects of root growth and geometry on the dynamics of soil-borne diseases. The book he edited on "Spatial Components of Plant Disease Epidemics" originated  from his time in Texas.

In 1986, somewhat perversely having just received  resident alien status in the US and tenure at the university, he returned to the  UK as Head of the Horticultural group of what was the Tropical Development and Research Institute - now the Natural Resources Institute  at Chatham. Over the next 8 years he took on further administrative duties as, successively: Head of Plant Pathology; Programme manager for ODA (now DFID)-funded research programmes in crop protection; and, in 1994, Director of Research. He also had an active involvement in  research: notably (in collaboration with Peter Jeffries) on the physiology, epidemiology and control of quiescent infections caused by Colletotrichum (a book on the genus was co-edited with John Bailey); population variation and epidemiology of the Sigatoka diseases of banana (Andrea Johanson); and the epidemiology and control of sorghum downy mildew in Africa (Clive Bock). The last two named Ph.D. students ensured at least some connection with  reality was maintained during this administrative period. His interests in theoretical plant virus epidemiology were re-awakened by links with Mike Thresh and have subsequently developed into major research initiatives. In 1994, a return to more structured personal research  (rather than administration of research) was definitely called for, and he  accepted the Chair in Ecological Phytopathology at Wageningen Agricultural University.

The use of `ecological' in a European context  leaves considerably room for linguistic ambiguity compared to normal English usage. Broadly the function of the Chair was to research (and teach) aspects of plant pathology at the individual plant, population and agroecosystem levels, although of course biochemical and molecular tools-of-the trade are now routinely used in such research.  The major components of research have dealt with the ecology and epidemiology of soil-borne plant pathogens in collaboration with Aad Termorshuizen and Jos Raaijmakers, with special emphasis on fungal growth dynamics and on the energetics and mechanisms of biological control. Theoretical work has been directed mostly towards fungal growth in relation to carbon and nitrogen fluxes, and a morphometric analysis of rhizomorph systems of Armillaria in natural soils.

Theoretical work in virus epidemiology has centred  on linking epidemic models for virus diseases with aspects of vector biology, including transmission characteristics, behaviour and population dynamics. Collaboration takes place with Larry Madden at Ohio State University, John Holt at NRI and Frank van den Bosch at Wageningen. Analysis centres on the derivation and use of a composite epidemiological parameter, the basic reproductive  number, for evaluating disease control strategies in such systems. This parameter has been found useful in human and animal disease epidemiology, for example in designing vaccination strategies. It is  only now realizing its potential in plant disease epidemiology, for example in determining the conditions under which roguing or removal of diseased plants or plant parts can eradicate a disease or maintain it at  a given endemic level.

In October this year, he takes up the Sainsbury Professorship in Horticulture at Wye  College, University of London, which in 2000 will merge with Imperial College.  Within the broader remit of the Professorship he will continue some elements of the research interests described above. In his Presidential year he has had a special interest in developing ways of involving the membership in the decision making of the Society given the new legal status of the Board, rather than the Council which it replaced in 1998. He is also concerned to promote the interdisciplinarity, both  taxonomic and in terms of levels of integration, that is or should be inherent in plant pathology, and that will undoubtedly outlast the current blinkered recognition of priorities. For this reason the theme of his Presidential meeting in December is `Biotic interactions': the  genetical, physiological and ecological interactions that influence plant-pathogen associations will be explored by a range of distinguished speakers from the UK and overseas, and will form the basis of a book to be published hopefully in 2000.