In late May 2013, collapse of mature watermelon plants (Citrullus lanatus L.) at first harvest occurred in several drip-irrigated commercial fields in the Coachella Valley, California. Above-ground symptoms consisted of chlorosis, wilting, and death of leaves starting at the crown and progressing rapidly towards the tip of vines. Structural roots of collapsed plants appeared healthy but feeder roots exhibited a brownish discoloration. Microscopic examination revealed that almost all epidermal cells of feeder roots contained either sporangia or resting spores of a fungus tentatively identified, based upon morphological characteristics, as Olpidium bornovanus (Sahtiy.) Karling. No other fungi or fungal-like organisms were microscopically observed in or isolated from structural roots, feeder roots, or vascular tissue of collapsed plants. Leaf, root, and peduncle samples from collapsed plants were tested for Melon necrotic spot virus (MNSV), a virus known to be transmitted by O. bornovanus, and Squash vein yellowing virus (SqVYV), a whitefly-transmitted ipomovirus known to cause watermelon vine decline (1). No MNSV was detected using previously described methods (3). No SqVYV was detected by testing total RNA from symptomatic plants (RNeasy Plant Mini Kit, Qiagen, Valencia, CA) with reverse transcription-PCR using previously described primers and methods (1,2). Genomic DNA was extracted from zoospores of the fungus which were obtained from a single-sporangial isolate maintained on watermelon seedlings. Analysis of ITS 1 and 2 gene sequences and a subsequent search in NCBI GenBank revealed a 99% identity to nucleotide sequences for O. bornovanus (Accession Nos. AB205215 and AB665758). To confirm Koch's postulates, roots of three 5-day-old watermelon seedlings were inoculated by exposure to zoospores (~1 × 105) in a beaker for 2 min and then transplanted into pots containing vermiculite. Pots were irrigated daily and incubated in a growth chamber (25°C, 12-h photoperiod). Controls consisted of non-inoculated watermelon seedlings. The experiment was repeated twice. Within 15 days of inoculation, all inoculated plants were stunted, and roots of stunted plants were brown and most root epidermal cells were filled with either sporangia or resting spores of O. bornovanus. Within 30 days of inoculation, 40 to 60% of the inoculated plants died in all three experiments. No other microorganisms were microscopically observed in or isolated from necrotic roots. Control plants remained symptomless over the duration of the study. Although O. bornovanus has been reported as a root pathogen of melons in greenhouse conditions (3), this is the first worldwide report of the fungus as a root pathogen of watermelons and its association with a late season vine decline in the field. Near-saturated soil conditions resulting from a daily irrigation regime during the latter part of the growing season apparently favored extensive root colonization by this indigenous and opportunistic zoosporic fungus, suggesting that growers should exercise care regarding the duration and frequency of irrigation events.
References: (1) S. Adkins et al. Phytopathology 97:145, 2007. (2) S. Adkins et al. Plant Dis. 1119, 2008. (3) M. E. Stanghellini et al. Plant Dis. 94:163, 2010.
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