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A comparative study of a fungal pathogen of oilseed rape (OSR) in Europe and China using new genetic markers suggests that the flooding associated with rice cultivation in China may be limiting its ability to sexually reproduce. These results have important implications for OSR integrated pest management strategies and could contribute to improved security of oilseed supplies.  

Blackleg (Phoma) disease is a globally important disease of OSR. Whilst there are at least two fungal species that cause the disease, the study focussed on just one, Plenodomus biglobosus, that causes serious outbreaks of the disease, particularly in China.  The fungus can reproduce both asexually and sexually, but it is heterothallic – in other words, two different mating types must be present for sexual reproduction to occur.

Using new PCR-based diagnostics, the research team screened 59 European and 157 Chinese isolates. Overall, in both Europe and China, P. biglobosus mating types did not deviate from a 1:1 ratio, which would be normal for sexually reproducing pathogen populations. Both mating types were balanced in all the individual European countries tested (Austria, France, Poland, UK). However, in China, mating types were only balanced in the eastern region, whereas in the northern and southwestern regions there were skewed ratios, more typical of predominantly asexual reproduction.

“In parts of China, in which rice and OSR are often grown in rotation; OSR stubble is often submerged under water for long periods. Flooding of infected debris for even relatively short periods of time may inhibit sexually derived spore production and release,” said Dr Kevin King, the lead investigator on the study.

Further research is now required to explore the extent to which sexually produced spores drive blackleg outbreaks in China. 

“Future work should focus on quantifying the amounts of airborne spores of P. biglobosus at different locations in China through air spore trapping in conjunction with species-specific real-time PCR,” said Dr King. 

P. biglobosus is becoming an increasingly important OSR pathogen in the UK, and it is the only species currently causing blackleg disease in China, the world's second largest OSR producer. Regular sexual reproduction, which could lead to increased genetic variation, enabling the pathogen to better respond to environmental change, may be occurring more often in European as opposed to Chinese pathogen populations.

“Understanding the extent to which sexual reproduction might be occurring in the field for Chinese P. biglobosus population, could provide novel insights, for instance into spore dispersal, that could be used to inform blackleg disease management strategies,” added Dr King. 

This research is published in the journal Pathogens and is a collaborative study between scientists at Rothamsted Research in the UK and Huazong Agricultural University in China.


Dr Kevin King

Plant Pathologist


Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries in areas as diverse as crop management, statistical interpretation and soil health. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative approach to developing innovative farm practice.
Through independent research, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally, with economic impact estimated to exceed £3 bn in annual contribution to the UK economy. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and multiple partnerships.
Rothamsted is home to three unique National Bioscience Research Infrastructures which are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).


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The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.