Loaded full of vitamins, rich in antioxidants, and bursting with flavour, blueberries are an icon of summertime in British Columbia.
Like all food producers in Canada, BC’s blueberry farmers routinely deal with various pests and pathogens that damage plants and affect crop yields, such as the blueberry scorch virus. These scourges tend to cause a loss of yield and profitability until managed.
Now, a mysterious new problem is threatening the province’s blueberry industry, the BC Blueberry Council warns: visibly sick plants are testing negative for unknown causes, and more blueberry bushes are being affected each season.
“In 2020, for instance, 18% of samples from damaged plants tested negative for both the blueberry scorch virus and blueberry shock virus,” notes a baffled Jim Mattsson, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Simon Fraser University.
Researchers on a two-year agri-tech project funded by Genome British Columbia are playing the role of plant detectives to solve this peculiar mystery.
“We need to know what is affecting these blueberry bushes to find out how to reduce the spread of disease,” says Mattsson, lead researcher on the project.
The research team, which includes the BC Blueberry Council, uses genomic tools like genome sequencing to identify the viruses causing disease in blueberry plants. The Council has developed a campaign to raise awareness among growers.
“Advances in emerging genome-based technologies are offering new tools and solutions to our most significant agricultural challenges,” says Federica Di Palma, Chief Scientific Officer and Vice President, Research and Innovation at Genome BC.
Initial lab results confirm two strains of a new blueberry virus and a new strain of blueberry shock virus never previously detected in the province, according to a statement from Genome BC. Further research is required, says Mattsson.
BC-based Phyto Diagnostics, a third party lab that BC farmers use to test for the shock and scorch viruses, intends to develop a diagnostic test for the new virus using the genomic information once discovered.
90% of Canada’s highbush blueberries are grown in BC, a province which produces 77 million kilograms of berries annually, with blueberries being one of the top agricultural exports.
“This project is an excellent example of how genomic science and research directly benefit BC and British Columbians,” stated Palma.
For more than 20 years, Genome BC has generated over $1.2 billion of investment in 500 genomics research and innovation projects, including over 1,000 collaborations with partners in BC and internationally.