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York scientists join research to improve oak tree health

Posted on 10 March 2016

Scientists at the University of York are part of a new £1 million research team to help combat the spread of new diseases in oak trees.

Oak tree (credit: Dr Alison Dyke)

Funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s (BBSRC) Tree Health and Plant Biosecurity Initiative (THAPBI), the project will bring together biological, environmental and social scientists from the universities of York, Reading, Oxford, the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Forest Research, and the James Hutton Institute.

The York and Reading project, Purpose (Protect Oak Ecosystems), will look at diseases such as acute oak decline (AOD), a bacterial infection which has spread into Britain and can kill trees within five years of symptoms first arising. There is currently no known cure.

Supporting the future health and resilience of the UK’s forests and woodland in the face of increasing pressures, York researchers will explore the experience of people and institutions in responding to tree health issues in order to recommend how best to work together.

Dr Alison Dyke, Research Associate at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) at the University of York, said: “Given the degree of threat to oak ecosystems from pests and diseases, business as usual is no longer appropriate. The Purpose project will adopt a holistic, interdisciplinary approach to provide improved knowledge and understanding of health threats to native oaks now and in the foreseeable future.

“As one of the most common tree species in Britain, oak is a natural icon, supports a huge array of native wildlife and is worth millions to the economy. Our work will focus on the social context of acute oak decline, extending the understanding of interactions between pests or diseases, host and environment, to re-conceptualise disease environments. Common ‘disease narratives’ and management strategies cannot be separated from research, policy and practice.”

Dr Rob Jackson, lead researcher and microbiologist at the University of Reading, said: “We are justifiably proud of the mighty oak, which is a worthy symbol of Britain. Yet climate change and globalisation has brought an array of new threats, including bacteria and insect pests, which are conspiring to attack our oak trees. Doing nothing could put oaks in serious risk of a Dutch Elm-type decline, but with the potential for an even bigger impact on the British countryside.

“We believe our innovative new approach could provide a blueprint for future scientific efforts to manage the health of Britain’s trees, and could prove useful to managing threats to other species such as ash dieback.”

Professor Melanie Welham, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: “Understanding threats to trees and habitats could make a huge difference to the UK’s social and economic landscape in the face of emerging risks from pests and pathogens. Research funded under this initiative has the potential to be transferred to other tree pests or diseases, to help keep our forests and crops safe.”

Further information:

  • THAPBI is funded under the Living With Environmental Change Partnership with support from the BBSRC, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Economic and Social Research Council, Forestry Commission, Natural Environment Research Council and the Scottish Government
  • The two projects funded under the THAPBI are: ‘Global threats from Phytophthora spp,: understanding drivers of emergence and opportunities for mitigation through nursery best practice’, led by Dr Sarah Green, Forest Researchand ‘PuRpOsE: Protect Oak Ecosystems: understanding and forecasting causes and consequences, management for future climates’, led by Dr Rob Jackson, University of Reading
  • For more information about the University of York’s Stockholm Environment Institute, visit: https://www.york.ac.uk/sei/

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