University of Pretoria Scientists Unravel Sequence of Notorious Tree Killing Fungus

Posted on October 14, 2009

Fusarium circinatum causes a destructive pine disease commonly known as pitch canker. It reduces growth and often kills trees. It originated in Central America and was accidentally introduced into many regions of the world where pine trees are planted as exotics, including countries such as South Africa, Chile, Spain, Japan, Korea and South Western USA.

Interestingly, the pitch canker pathogen was first observed in South Africa in 1990 where it was killing pine seedlings. It is now the most important impediment to pine production in the country resulting in nursery or plantation establishment losses that can exceed 50%. More recently it has also emerged in mature pine stands in the Cape region where it has resulted in serious damage and is causing the stem disease for which the fungus is best known elsewhere in the world.

“Genetics of both the pathogen and tree are bound to play a major role in the arm’s race to stay ahead of this disease. A complete cure is unlikely, but control is probable. Continuous research may also provide more sophisticated tools for tree breeders seeking resistance to this devastating pathogen,” says Prof Brenda Wingfield, Professor of Genetics and Deputy Dean of The University of Pretoria’s Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences.

Prof Wingfield and a number of students started the sequencing study in 2008. The sequence was done by Inqaba Biotec a South African genomics service company based in Sunnyside, Pretoria. She is now spending six months at the University of California in Davis, USA, studying and developing a deeper understanding as to what the genome can reveal about the fungus.

It is anticipated that the Fusarium circinatum genome will be one of many genomes annotated the University of Pretoria in the future. The skills gained from this project will be used to pursue a higher level of academic and research training at UP.

“.The larger vision of the project is to develop an annotation platform for genome sequencing and annotation in South Africa and this will clearly promote biotechnology and education in the biological sciences in the future” Prof Wingfield concluded.

The project is funded by the National Research Foundation (NRF) and the Department of Trade and Industry, while the Oppenheimer foundation, NRF and the University of Pretoria have provided support for Prof Wingfield to undertake her sabbatical research in the USA.

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