New single test to detect plant viruses

Last update on Oct. 11, 2016.

WA RESEARCHERS have developed a single test to detect multiple viruses in imported plants, in a bid to improve Australia’s biosecurity, quarantine efficiency and increase profitability.

The diagnostic toolkit taps into plants natural defence mechanism to identify viruses.
Image credit: Department of Agriculture and Water Resources

Scientists from Perth’s Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre (PBCRC) and New Zealand’s Plant and Food Research have spent three years working on the test, developing a comprehensive diagnostic toolkit.

Live plant material imported into Australia takes up to two-and-a-half years to be inspected, screened, treated and released from quarantine, according to Murdoch University senior research fellow and project leader Dr Roberto Barrero.

This is to protect Australia’s environment, agriculture industry and economy against harmful exotic pests and diseases.

Dr Barrero says the new test could speed up the current process by 12 months.

“We wanted to find a solution to the bottleneck plant pathology agencies have at the moment,” he says.

“The existing protocols are very sensitive but very time-consuming."

“They are really targeted…you need to know beforehand what viruses you are looking for, so you can screen specifically for them.”

Their innovative approach uses cutting-edge genome sequencing technology to tap into plants’ natural defence systems, which Dr Barrero says is a world first.

“As far as we have seen, that’s something that has not been done before,” he says.

Dr Barrero says plants have developed strategies to detect and counteract virus infections.

“If a virus infects a plant, it’s detected by the plant’s immune system and the viral sequence gets chopped into small pieces of genetic material,” he says.

“We've taken all these small pieces and put them through next generation sequencing technology."

"What this technology does is get us the genetic information of these pieces. Each small piece is a piece of the puzzle…we use this toolkit to reconstruct the puzzle."

Dr Barrero says the toolkit can detect multiple viruses simultaneously, and could reduce importation costs by up to 50%.

“At the moment, to have your imported plants screened will cost you several thousand dollars for the tests, storage and maintenance period,” he says.

“Another advantage is we can screen against every known virus in the public databases, which means less chance of a viral outbreak that could potentially impact the plant industries.”

Viruses that suppress a plant’s immune system cannot be detected by the new test.

The Australian Government has approved and adopted the toolkit for ornamental grasses and extended the project for a year to get feedback from industry stakeholders and policy-makers.

“It’s an exciting advancement,” Dr Barrero says.

“By this time next year, we hope this technology would be adopted for other key industries, like citrus, cherries and horticulture.”

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