August 22, 2022
Researchers Look for Source of Disease Afflicting BC Blueberry Plants
Vancouver, BC — Loaded full of vitamins and minerals, rich in antioxidants, and bursting with flavour, blueberries are an icon of summertime in British Columbia. Families flock to farm gates and U-picks to bring home baskets of blueberry bounty destined for pies, jams, salads and taste buds.
Like all food producers, BC’s blueberry farmers routinely deal with various pests and pathogens that damage plants and affect crop yields. Recently, the blueberry scorch virus has become the scourge of the industry, causing a loss of yield and profitability. Farmers can test sick plants to determine whether the blueberry scorch virus, or other known viruses, are to blame. Once they have this information, farmers know what to do to protect their plants.
But now, a mysterious new problem is threatening BC’s blueberry industry – visibly sick plants are testing negative for unknown causes. More and more blueberry bushes are being affected each season. Researchers on a two-year project funded by Genome British Columbia (Genome BC) are playing the role of plant detectives to solve this mystery.
“In 2020, for instance, 18% of samples from damaged plants tested negative for both the blueberry scorch virus and blueberry shock virus. We need to know what is affecting these blueberry bushes to find out how to reduce the spread of disease,” says Jim Mattsson, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Simon Fraser University and lead researcher on the project.
Fresh Blueberries, Photo Credit BC Blueberry Council
The research team, which includes the BC Blueberry Council, uses genomic tools like genome sequencing to identify the viruses causing disease in blueberry plants. The BC Blueberry Council has also developed a campaign to raise awareness among growers.
Initial lab results confirm two strains of a new blueberry virus and a new strain of blueberry shock virus never previously detected in the province. Not all viruses affect plant health, so it’s too early to tell whether these new strains contribute to crop damage, and further research is required.
Once the cause is found, BC-based Phyto Diagnostics, a third party lab that BC farmers use to test for the shock and scorch viruses, will develop a diagnostic test for the new virus using the genomic information.
Blueberries provide significant economic and cultural value to the province; more than 90 percent of Canada’s highbush blueberries are grown in BC. They are BC’s largest berry crop in terms of value and production volume. According to the BC Blueberry Council, BC produces 77 million kilograms of berries annually. In 2019, $273 million in blueberries were exported to 20 markets, making blueberries one of the top agricultural exports in the province.
“Advances in emerging genome-based technologies are offering new tools and solutions to our most significant agricultural challenges,” says Federica Di Palma, Chief Scientific Officer and Vice President, Research and Innovation at Genome BC. “This project is an excellent example of how genomic science and research directly benefit BC and British Columbians.”
Contact: A.G. Klei, Senior Communications Manager