Detection, identification and significance of phytoplasmas in grasses in northern Australia

K Blanche, L Tran-nguyen, Karen Gibb

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Sugarcane yields have been severely reduced by white leaf and grassy shoot phytoplasma diseases in many parts of Asia. Australian sugarcane crops are not known to be affected by these diseases, but plant pathogenic phytoplasmas found in other introduced and native grasses in northern Australia could pose a serious threat to the Australian sugarcane industry. To further evaluate this threat, leaves from plants of 20 grass species, with and without symptoms, were collected during field surveys in northern Australia and tested to determine whether phytoplasmas were present and whether symptoms were reliable indicators of phytoplasma presence. Molecular tools were used to detect and characterize phytoplasmas. Four different phytoplasmas were found in seven grass species known to grow near healthy sugarcane crops. All the phytoplasmas were closely related to sugarcane white leaf phytoplasma (SCWL), one of the phytoplasmas that causes disease in sugarcane in Asia. Four of the host plant species and two of the phytoplasmas were new records. The relationship between symptoms and phytoplasma presence was poor. Because some plants with symptoms tested negative for phytoplasmas, a series of surveys was carried out in which flowers, leaves, roots and stems of two known host plant species, Whiteochloa cymbiformis and Sorghum stipoideum, were tested separately on nine occasions during two wet seasons. This was done to investigate the distribution of phytoplasmas within plants over time. Results showed that spatial and temporal variation of phytoplasmas occurred in these two host plant species. Hence, evaluation of disease distribution within a region requires repeated testing of all plant parts from plants without symptoms, as well as those with symptoms. To date, there is no report of a vector capable of transmitting to Australian sugarcane the phytoplasmas found in grasses in this study. If one is present, or occurs in the future, then native and introduced grasses could constitute a large reservoir of phytoplasma for vectors to draw on. This work provides an early warning for the sugarcane industry that the potential for infection exists.
    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)505-512
    Number of pages8
    JournalPlant Pathology
    Issue number4
    Publication statusPublished - 2003


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