Coffee Wilt Disease is caused by a fungus that has produced disastrous epidemics in Sub-Saharan Africa since the 1920s, and now threatens two of the continent’s most popular coffee varieties: Arabica and Robusta.
“We can provide producers the knowledge they need to lessen the danger of new illnesses appearing if we can understand how new types of illnesses evolve.” said Lily Peck.
The new research suggests that the fungus acquired DNA from a closely related fungus that causes wilt disease in a variety of crops, including Panama disease in bananas, to improve its capacity to infect coffee plants.
This understanding, according to the researchers, might help farmers limit the chance of new disease strains arising by avoiding growing coffee alongside other crops or limiting the build-up of plant debris that may host the associated fungus.
Studying historical samples in CABI’s culture collection, according to the research team from Imperial College London, the University of Oxford, and the agricultural non-profit CABI, might reveal a wealth of insights into how crop diseases evolve and identify new, sustainable strategies to combat them. The research was published in BMC Genomics today.
Lily Peck, the study’s first author, is a doctoral student at the Grantham Institute’s Science and Solutions for a Changing Planet Doctoral Training Partnership and Imperial College’s Department of Life Sciences. “Using ever-increasing quantities of pesticides and fungicides to combat developing crop diseases is neither sustainable nor cost-effective for many growers,” she added.
“We can provide producers the knowledge they need to lessen the danger of new illnesses appearing in the first place if we can instead understand how new types of illnesses evolve.”
Cryogenically frozen samples of the fungus that causes Coffee Wilt Disease were brought back to life by the scientists. There have been two major outbreaks of the illness, in the 1920s-1950s and 1990s-2000s, and it continues to cause harm.
In Tanzania, for example, wilt destroyed 55,000 Robusta coffee trees in 2011, losing 160T of coffee – enough to make almost 22 million cups of coffee.