Stopping the Spread of Pierce's Disease

    Steven Lindow deserves some kind of award.

     So do his fellow researchers at Cal Berkeley.

     Lindow and Company have cracked the genetic code of bacterium that causes Pierce’s disease — a bacterium that can kill grapevines in very short order.

     In 2001, a little bug known as the glassy winged sharpshooter brought the disease to Kern County, resulting in hundreds of acres of vineyards being wiped out.

     We didn’t hear much about it because it happened in Kern County — a region where winegrapes are grown, but isn’t known for producing world-class wines.

     Had the outbreak occurred in Napa Valley or Sonoma County or Santa Barbara County, the story would have been different. News crews from around the world would have been flying in to document the death of an industry — or, at least, a significant chunk of an industry.

     Truth be told, Pierce’s disease does exist in Sonoma County. The good news is that it hasn’t been widely spread because the “transporter” there isn’t the glassy winged sharpshooter, but rather his less well-traveled cousin, the blue-green sharpshooter — a bug that doesn’t wander as far or eat as much.

     Still, Sonoma County vintners are taking the situation seriously.

     “It’s a real threat,” said Nick Frey, President of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission. Frey told the Santa Rosa Press Democrat that, “If it got established in Sonoma County and was indeed effective at moving (the bacterium) around vineyards, it could put people out of the grape business.”

     But thanks to the work of Steven Lindow and other researchers, that possibility has been lessened through the genetic engineering of grapevines that are very resistant to Pierce’s disease.

     In layman’s language, Lindow seems to have figured out how to disrupt the bacteria’s cell-to-cell communication, which slows its spread through the grapevines. In essence, he has found a way to trick the bacterium into thinking a vine is already filled with other bacteria, this causing the new bacterium to automatically shut down.

     Hey, all’s fair in love and plant biology.

Posted in Editor's Journal
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