A new breakthrough on ash dieback

22 April 2016

UK scientists have identified the country’s first ash tree that shows tolerance to ash dieback, raising the possibility of using selective breeding to develop strains of trees that are tolerant to the disease.

The findings, which could help ensure ash trees will thrive in UK woodlands, have today (22 April) been published in a report co-funded by Defra and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Ash dieback is spreading throughout the UK and, in one woodland in Norfolk, a great number of trees are infected. However, there are exceptions which demonstrate very low levels of infection by the ash dieback fungus and here researchers have identified one tree, nicknamed ‘Betty’, as having a strong tolerance to the disease.

The breakthrough comes after researchers from the government-backed Nornex project, led by the John Innes Centre in Norfolk, published the world-leading research report into ash dieback disease.

The team compared the genetics of trees with different levels of tolerance to ash dieback disease. From there, they developed three genetic markers which enabled them to predict whether or not a tree is likely to be tolerant to the disease – even whether it is likely to be ‘mildly’ or ‘strongly’ tolerant. Betty, they discovered, was predicted to show strong tolerance.

Defra spokesperson in the Lords, Lord Gardiner, unveiled the latest findings at the John Innes Centre in Norfolk today. He said:

“This Government has invested more than any other country in research on ash dieback, and today’s breakthrough is an excellent example of how the UK’s cutting-edge science is leading the way to help support tree health.

“We want to guarantee the graceful ash tree continues to have a place in our environment for centuries to come and this vital work is a major step towards ensuring just that.”

The Nornex report also indicates that the three genetic markers are more prevalent in UK ash trees than in those from some other countries. Reasons for this are as yet unknown but this could be taken into consideration for any future tree development programmes.

UK Chief Plant Health Officer, Nicola Spence, added:

“This unprecedented work conducted by British scientists has uncovered an exciting development in tree health.

“It paves the way for tackling this destructive disease and will help ensure that Britain’s stock of ash trees, and its countryside, remains resilient against pests and disease in the future.”

Professor Allan Downie, Emeritus Fellow at the John Innes Centre and coordinator of the Nornex consortium, said:

“The identification of genetic markers for trees with low susceptibility to ash dieback is a large first step, one of many that will be needed in the fight to help ash trees survive this disease epidemic.

“It is astonishing that we have come so far in so short a time, and this success is due to the commitment and collaboration of my many colleagues and the funding they received from BBSRC, DEFRA and NERC.”

Professor Melanie Welham, BBSRC Chief Executive, said:

“Working across Government we issued this rapid response to ensure the UK’s excellent plant science base was primed to help combat the threat of ash dieback.

“Tree pests and pathogens present a significant challenge to our woodlands and habitats, but through fundamental bioscience research we can gain the vital insights needed to help protect the UK’s trees.”

Image: Symptoms of Chalara ash dieback. A fungal disease affecting the ash trees of Europe. Picture shows wilting of leaves caused by necrosis of the rachis. Courtesy The Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), Crown Copyright

Notes to editors

For more information, please contact:

Hayley London

Marketing & Communications Officer, Earlham Institute (EI)

  • +44 (0)1603 450 107

hayley.london@earlham.ac.uk

1. Technical summary attached at Annex A.
2. The Nornex project’s research report can be found here: http://oadb.tsl.ac.uk/?page_id=964
3. This research was funded by Defra in partnership with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
4. The Nornex project was delivered by a consortium of researchers from the John Inness Centre, the University of York, the Earlham Institute, the University of Exeter, FERA science Ltd, the University of Copenhagen, Forest Research, the Sainsbury Laboratory, East Malling Research, the Forest and Landscape Institute Norway and the University of Edinburgh. They also collaborated with researchers at Queen Mary University of London, who were supported by NERC and DEFRA.
5. Defra and BBSRC made further provisions for further research into tree pests and pathogens such as the Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative, which can be found here: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/news/fundamental-bioscience/2016/160310-pr-2m-ple...
6. For more information please call Defra press office on 020 7238 1542 or out of hours 0345 051 8486

The Earlham Institute (EI) is a world-leading research institute focusing on the development of genomics and computational biology. EI is based within the Norwich Research Park and is one of eight institutes that receive strategic funding from Biotechnology and Biological Science Research Council (BBSRC) - £6.45M in 2015/2016 - as well as support from other research funders. EI operates a National Capability to promote the application of genomics and bioinformatics to advance bioscience research and innovation.

EI offers a state of the art DNA sequencing facility, unique by its operation of multiple complementary technologies for data generation. The Institute is a UK hub for innovative bioinformatics through research, analysis and interpretation of multiple, complex data sets. It hosts one of the largest computing hardware facilities dedicated to life science research in Europe. It is also actively involved in developing novel platforms to provide access to computational tools and processing capacity for multiple academic and industrial users and promoting applications of computational Bioscience. Additionally, the Institute offers a training programme through courses and workshops, and an outreach programme targeting key stakeholders, and wider public audiences through dialogue and science communication activities.

www.earlham.ac.uk

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.

Funded by Government, BBSRC invested over £509M in world-class bioscience in 2014-15 and is the leading funder of wheat research in the UK (over £100M investment on UK wheat research in the last 10 years). We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

For more information about BBSRC, our science and our impact see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk For more information about BBSRC strategically funded institutes see: http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/institutes

The Sainsbury Laboratory (TSL) is a world-leading research centre focusing on making fundamental discoveries about plants and how they interact with microbes. TSL not only provides fundamental biological insights into plant-pathogen interactions, but is also delivering novel, genomics-based, solutions which will significantly reduce losses from major diseases of food crops, especially in developing countries. TSL is an independent charitable company and receives strategic funding from the Gatsby Charitable Foundation with the balance coming from competitive grants and contracts from a range of public and private bodies, including the European Union (EU), Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and commercial and charitable organisations

www.tsl.ac.uk

Our mission is to generate knowledge of plants and microbes through innovative research, to train scientists for the future, to apply our knowledge of nature’s diversity to benefit agriculture, the environment, human health and wellbeing, and engage with policy makers and the public.

To achieve these goals we establish pioneering long-term research objectives in plant and microbial science, with a focus on genetics. These objectives include promoting the translation of research through partnerships to develop improved crops and to make new products from microbes and plants for human health and other applications. We also create new approaches, technologies and resources that enable research advances and help industry to make new products. The knowledge, resources and trained researchers we generate help global societies address important challenges including providing sufficient and affordable food, making new products for human health and industrial applications, and developing sustainable bio-based manufacturing.

This provides a fertile environment for training the next generation of plant and microbial scientists, many of whom go on to careers in industry and academia, around the world.


The John Innes Centre is strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). In 2014-2015 the John Innes Centre received a total of £36.9 million from the BBSRC.

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