Fast-track research funding has been awarded to improve understanding of ash dieback fungus. Image courtesy of shutterstock.

Bioscience to battle ash dieback

The University of Exeter is a member of a consortium awarded £2.4M by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) for urgent research into the ash dieback fungus and the genetics of resistance in ash trees.

Ash dieback (Chalara fraxinea) is a devastating fungus that threatens our third most common broadleaf tree (after oak and birch).

The fast-track research funding has been awarded to gather an in-depth understanding of the ash dieback fungus and to provide genetic clues about some ash trees’ natural resistance to attack. Computer models will also be built to develop monitoring plans for the distribution and spread of the fungus, as well as charting how the disease might progress. This knowledge will help to fight the fungus and replace lost trees with those more able to survive.

Professor Sarah Gurr from Biosciences is leading the University of Exeter group in the Nornex consortium that has been awarded the funding. The group includes Prof Murray Grant, Dr Chris Thornton, Dr David Studholme, Professor Gero Steinberg and Professor Nick Talbot. The consortium brings together tree health and forestry specialists with scientists working with state-of-the-art genetic sequencing, biological data and imaging technologies to investigate the molecular and cellular basis of interactions between the fungus and ash trees.

Led by Professor Allan Downie at the John Innes Centre (JIC), the consortium includes: the University of Exeter, The Sainsbury Laboratory, East Malling Research, The Genepool at the University of Edinburgh, The Genome Analysis Centre, the Food and Environment Research Agency, Forest Research, the University of Copenhagen and the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute. The research will also complement a project funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) at Queen Mary University of London to decipher the ash tree’s genetic code.

BBSRC Chief Executive Professor Douglas Kell said: “This agile funding response will ensure we improve our understanding of this devastating tree disease as quickly as possible. Little is known about the fungus, why it is so aggressive, or its interactions with the trees that it attacks. This prevents effective control strategies. These grants will enable the UK’s world-leading bioscience community to speed up the response to tackling the disease directly. It will also help us to understand and harness the ways in which some ash trees can defend themselves naturally.”

Genome sequences of up to 30 samples of the fungus from the UK and Europe will rapidly help to acquire in-depth genetic information to shed light on the infection process. These data will reveal clues to the origins of the disease and provide genetic ‘markers’ to allow the spread of different strains of the fungus to be followed. Genetic data will also provide direct insights into the nature of the fungus.

The consortium will obtain information about how the disease spreads by studying infection in climate-controlled growth facilities, tracking the fungus as it colonises the plant. This vital information will help to develop effective disease control strategies.

The project will also uncover how some ash trees can partially resist attack. About 2% of Danish trees appear to ward off the disease but little information on the genetic basis for this is known. Genetic data from these trees will be compared to susceptible trees to find variations in their genetic codes. By identifying these differences, genetic makers can be developed to help breeders produce more resistant trees.

The Nornexconsortium, named for the three Norns who tend the ash tree of life ‘Yggdrasil’ in Norse mythology, will upload its data to an open-access website ( This crowd-sourced, data-sharing approach will share the genetic data to exploit the expertise of plant and fungal research communities internationally.

Date: 8 March 2013

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