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Phytoplasma Research Begins to Bloom

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Science  24 Jul 2009:
Vol. 325, Issue 5939, pp. 388-390
DOI: 10.1126/science.325_388

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Summary

Bacteria belonging to an obscure group called phytoplasmas shrivel grapes in Europe and Australia; stunt corn growth in South America; destroy pears and apples in the United States and Europe; ruin peanuts, sesame, and soybean in Asia; and sicken elms, coconuts, asters, and hydrangeas on multiple continents. And as the world warms up, these attacks on food crops, lumber and shade trees, and ornamental flowers will likely grow, in part because the insects that transmit the bacteria are expected to expand their ranges north and south. For all the destruction that phytoplasmas inflict, one might expect that dozens of agricultural companies and academic labs have generated abundant amounts of information about them. But study of these plant pathogens got off to a slow start. For almost half a century, plant pathologists thought phytoplasmas were viruses. To this day, the inability to grow these bacteria outside plants or insects hinders efforts to get a handle on their biology and genomes. However, in 2004, scientists published the first full phytoplasma genomic sequence and, since then, they've completed three additional ones. With that information, researchers have begun to elucidate how phytoplasma proteins manipulate plant physiology and insect behavior, findings that might inspire novel measures to stem the devastating agricultural infections around the world.