Dickeya is coming

A new strain of blackleg is showing up in seed.
Rosalie I. Tennison
June 24, 2016
By Rosalie I. Tennison

First identified in Ontario potatoes in 2015, Dickeya is shaping up to be a problem. Photo courtesy of Tracy Shinners-Carnelley. 

Potato growers are familiar with the problems that stem from blackleg and are adept at managing it. However, two new strains have been identified and one has been spreading in North America for the last two years. Dickeya dianthicola has been affecting potatoes in Europe since the 1970s, but is now found frequently in the United States, particularly in Maine and south along the eastern seaboard. Dickeya is most probably spread on seed and is shaping up to be a problem in North America.

“Dickeya may have two problem features,” says Amy Charkowski, a potato specialist at the University of Wisconsin. “It needs fewer cells to cause disease and it can remain in a kind of dormancy until the right conditions trigger the disease.” She adds the bacteria thrives under wet conditions and is an equal opportunity pathogen so can be found on other vegetables and some ornamental plants. Dickeya does not seem to favour grains and legumes, which makes crop rotation a good option to lessen its spread.

Blackleg seems to resemble the common cold because it changes. Growers use management practices to control the disease, but this new species is not so easily harnessed using this familiar method. Crop protection products are not effective on Dickeya dianthicola. Meanwhile, researchers have identified Dickeya solani in Europe that is very aggressive and is not easily controlled, but it has yet to cross the ocean. This proves that complacency, when it comes to blackleg control, is not an option.

“We found Dickeya in Ontario potatoes in 2015,” says Gary Secor, a plant pathologist from North Dakota State University in Fargo. “The seed came from Maine, which is an example of how easily it spreads.”

To minimize the spread of Dickeya, both Charkowski and Secor recommend not cutting seed and, instead, using the whole tuber. Since it does not survive well in soil, they also recommend diligent crop rotation. “There are no food safety issues, but there is still a lot we don’t know about Dickeya,” Secor says. “We also don’t have any idea what the economic thresholds might be.”

“We are applying for grants to allow us to focus more research on Dickeya,” Charkowski says. “We want to learn what breeders need to know to enable them to breed for resistance, and we need to determine what the thresholds are for seed.

The symptoms are similar to the strains of blackleg growers are familiar with, so tubers need to be tested to identify Dickeya. “If it is present the most noticeable symptom is plant wilting,” Charkowski explains. “There will be rotten potatoes at harvest and there could be rotting at plant emergence.” She says determining an accurate laboratory test may be part of the planned research, but a field assay would be more helpful. Knowing the strain may help determine the most effective control as well.

“A lot of co-operation is required with all agencies working together to make progress on identification and control,” Secor admits. “Certification agencies need to determine if it requires certification at the seed stage.”

According to Tracy Shinners-Carnelley of Peak of the Market in Winnipeg, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s seed potato inspection program has strict tolerance for blackleg infection. “This is likely a factor in how the incidence of blackleg in Canada is quite low,” she says. In the United States, she adds, blackleg is not part of the industry’s seed certification process, which puts Canadian growers at a bit of an advantage when seed changes hands because it is screened. However, accurate tests for particular strains of Dickeya may be necessary if the more virulent versions enter North America.

“Canadian growers need to be aware of the risks and be proactive in order to prevent the introduction or establishment of any new disease,” Shinners-Carnelley continues. “My main message to growers is to follow best management practices and this, combined with the use of certified seed, will help to reduce the risk and spread of Dickeya.”

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