Jul 18

Disease plea: Growers needed in pomegranategenome hunt

Heartbreak: Grower Danny Lee with pomegranates dying from a mystery disease on his property in Merbein last year. TWO YEARS after a mystery disease wiped out Australia’s infant pomegranate industry, Murdoch University researchers in WA are moving to identify the pathogen responsible.

Plant virologist Dr Nuredin Habili, of Waite Diagnostics, part of the University of Adelaide’s School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, was excited by the results.

He said Dr Steve Wylie’s research group at Murdoch University would use high-speed DNA sequencing to compare the genomes – the complete genetic blueprint – of affected and unaffected pomegranates of the same variety.

Dr Habili invited Sunraysia growers to send samples of soft new shoot growth and flowers from both healthy and diseased plants to Waite Diagnostics, which would forward them to Dr Wylie’s team for analysis (see breakout).

The technique that will be used to hunt down any suspect pathogen is called comparative genomics – it relies on sampling tissues from healthy and disease plants of the same variety, or clone.

A Next-Gen DNA sequencer not much larger than a computer printer can “read” the entire DNA blueprint, or genome, of a plant or animal in less than a day, for only a few thousand dollars.

Healthy and diseased clones have identical genetic blueprints, so in a same-and-different comparison, their identical genomes will cancel each other out.

Researchers will look for any alien genetic material contaminating the DNA sequence of the diseased clone.

Dr Wylie said yesterday if the mystery pathogen was a virus or a viroid – a naked strand of genetic material lacking a virus’ protein coat – the contaminating genetic­ material was likely to be in the form of RNA, because most viruses and viroids have RNA-encoded genegenetic blueprints.

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