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Student Research Spotlight - Dana Roberts

Posted: July 25, 2014

This is the 5th of twelve short news articles written by students, during the professional development class, about each other's research.

Genetic Diversity in Bacterial Wilt May Be Key to Better Disease Management
By Maggie Lewis

Dana Roberts, a graduate student at Penn State University, hopes to better understand how genetic diversity in bacterial wilt, the economically devastating disease of pumpkins, squash, and melon, affects transmission of this disease by the Striped Cucumber Beetle.

Annually, bacterial wilt is responsible for millions of dollars in crop loss to farmers across the Eastern United States. Farmers are forced to limit its spread through heavy pesticide applications directed at the beetle.

“Currently, we have no known control for this bacteria,” Roberts said. “My hope is that through a better understanding of how this disease spreads between crops, we someday may develop new disease management strategies”.

Like common human pathogens, such as the flu or common cold, there are many different strains of bacterial wilt. Individual strains appear to infect only one or two species of crops, though this interaction is not well understood. Through her work, Roberts aims to determine if the beetle can transmit a given strain of bacterial wilt from its typical host crop to a different species. The potential for transmission of wilt between crops has enormous implications for cucumber beetle management.

This past year, Roberts has been rearing a colony of Striped Cucumber Beetles in one of the Penn State greenhouses. She plans to infect crop seedlings with different strains of bacterial wilt, feeding the infected plant material to her beetles. Using molecular biology methods, she will then test the beetles to see if they are capable of transmitting the particular strain to a different crop species.

“This work is a crucial step towards fully realizing how genetic diversity plays into the interactions between bacterial wilt, its host plants, and the beetle vector” added Roberts. “It may be the key to shifting disease control from intensive pesticide sprays to management tactics that target the pathogen itself.”