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Light leaf spot in Brussels sprouts (click for more)
Light leaf spot in Brussels sprouts (click for more)

Press Release - 22 December 2006

Scientists publish a photo gallery of the diseases threatening Christmas dinner

The scientists who help ensure that only disease-free vegetables make it onto our dinner plates have published a photo gallery of some of the fungi, bacteria and viruses that routinely threaten the traditional Christmas dinner.

The gallery, published on the photo-sharing website Flickr (see related links), includes the devastating potato blight which threatens the 12,000 tonnes of potatoes eaten in the UK at Christmas, as well as the leaf spot that menaces Brussels sprouts, and cavity spot that terrorises carrots.

Other pictures included in the gallery include those affecting beer (barley mildew), coffee (coffee wilt and rust), and chocolate (witches’ broom and black pod diseases).

The gallery has been published by the British Society for Plant Pathology (BSPP) which celebrates its 25th anniversary this week.

“It would be nice to think that as people sit down for their Christmas lunches, they could spare a thought for the effort and expertise that goes into getting sufficient and disease-free food onto their plate,” said Dr Richard Cooper from the University of Bath, BSPP President-Elect.

“Although these culinary ‘basics’ are all taken for granted, they are only available to us by controlling a whole range of diseases. Of course these comments apply to any meal, but Christmas seems as good a time as any to recognise how fortunate we are.

“Although in the developed world we have the resources to control many of the plant diseases we face, plant pathology in the developing world remains a very important challenge.”

In developed countries plant pathologists strive to control disease with more environmentally friendly and sustainable methods, such as preventing accidental introductions, finding and using natural genes for resistance and employing benign microorganisms against those that cause disease.

However, most damage is still caused in developing countries where plant pathologists can help achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of eradicating extreme hunger through improved food security and famine.

Many cultures are heavily dependent on rice, for example, which succumbs to Magnaporthe rice blast, arguably of equivalent importance in those countries as potato blight.

Major epidemics are still threatening the livelihoods and food supply of many communities, with swollen shoot in cocoa in West Africa, cassava mosaic virus and coffee wilt in East Africa, and banana bacterial wilt in Central Africa - all have major impacts on national economies and, in turn, the livelihoods of those in most need.

“Plant diseases have frequently changed the course of history, so plant pathology has an important role to play in the future,” said Dr Cooper, who works in the Department of Biology & Biochemistry at the University of Bath.

“The potato famine of 1845 resulted in the death of over one million people in Ireland, and America would certainly not have such an extensive Irish-American community without the mass exodus from Ireland during this period.

“Also, Britain would probably not be a nation of tea drinkers if coffee rust had not wiped out the coffee bushes of Ceylon in 1869 leading to replacement by tea.

“More recently our landscape has been radically changed by Dutch elm disease and new diseases threaten oaks, alder and some conifers.”

Although the subject itself is much older, the BSPP was established in 1981 to cater specifically for the needs of plant pathologists, who were then split between the Association of Applied Biologists and the British Mycological Society.

The Society now has more than 700 hundred members from 50 countries around the world who are leading the fight to control thousands of diseases, many of which have the capacity to devastate crops wherever they are grown.

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