BC produces greater than 90% of Canada’s highbush blueberries. In 2019, $273 million in blueberries were exported to 20 markets making it the highest value agricultural export in the province. British Columbians’ also benefit from abundant supply of the local highbush blueberries, both fresh and frozen. However, success and profitability of the blueberry industry and its ability to provide safe and local food is under continued threat from pathogens.
Two viral pathogens, blueberry shock virus (BlShV) and blueberry scorch virus (BlScV), present the greatest threat to BC growers. The former is pollen transmitted and non-lethal to the plants whereas the latter is aphid transmitted, lethal and requires removal of infected plants. Both viruses cause similar plant disease symptoms but can be differentiated by using specific antibody diagnostic assays to help producers make the correct management decision. However, the current gold standard antibody assays have become increasingly unreliable with samples collected from plants bearing typical disease symptoms testing negative for both viruses. In 2020 for instance, 18% of samples collected from plants with BlShV and BlScV symptoms across the Lower Mainland tested negative for both antibody assays.
Blueberry growers need a sensitive and reliable assay to properly differentiate between BlScV and BlShV and reduce the spread of these and other novel infection agents. Genomic tools, like genome sequencing, can be reliably used to identify unknown pathogen(s) or variant strains of known viruses causing disease in blueberry plants. To realize this, Dr, Jim Mattsson (Simon Fraser University), Dr. Eric Gerbrandt (BC Blueberry Council), and Dr. Peter Ellis (Phyto Diagnostics Ltd.) together will develop an affordable diagnostic assay that will use genomic information for accurate identification and differentiation of the new pathogen(s) from known viruses to enable better management decisions for blueberry producers.