Genome of devastating pine wilt nematode sequenced

27th Sep 2011

Scientists from The James Hutton Institute have helped unravel the genome of a nematode that causes huge damage to the forestry industry and forest ecosystems in East Asia. The sequencing of the genome is the first step in developing new ways to tackle the pine wilt nematode Bursaphelenchus xylophilus.

The research, published in PLoS Pathogens, was conducted by a worldwide group of scientists, led by the Forestry and Forest Products Research Institute (Tsukuba, Japan). Dr John Jones and Dr Peter Cock of The James Hutton Institute contributed to the work as one of three UK partners, along with The Wellcome Trust Sanger Centre and Queens University Belfast.

The pine wilt nematode causes devastation to the forestry industry and forest ecosystems in China, Japan and other parts of East Asia. It is native to North America (where it causes little damage) but was introduced into East Asia at the start of the 20th Century. In spite of strict quarantine rules the nematode continues to spread – most often in packaging wood – and was introduced into Portugal in the 1990s from where it has spread to Spain.

The nematode has an unusual life cycle. Nematodes feed on fungus in dead or dying trees and are transported to other trees by adult Monchamus beetles. When the beetle moves to another dead or dying tree the nematode remains a fungal feeder. However, when the beetle moves to a living tree the nematode feeds on the tree. The tree dies as a result of nematode infection (within a few weeks when temperatures are high) and the nematode is then able to feed on fungi that colonise the dead tree.

The genome sequence has revealed many adaptations to this unusual life cycle. It has an expanded repertoire of genes that allow it to digest food and cope with stress responses and this may reflect the large range of environments that it occupies. In addition, the nematode has acquired genes from fungi that help it to metabolise the cell walls of trees.

It is hoped that the genome sequence will help in the development of new strategies to control this pathogen as predicted changes in climate mean that the area in which it can cause disease will expand to the North from Portugal and Spain within the EU.

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