In September 2009, ~40 declining blueberry plants (Vaccinium corymbosum L. ‘Jersey’) were observed in a poorly drained area of a 30-year-old field near Fennville, MI. The stunted bushes had yellow leaves and defoliation; others were completely dead. The grower reported that the bushes had been declining over several years. Root samples tested positive in a Phytophthora ELISA test (Agdia Inc., Elkhart IN). Twenty root pieces (2 cm long and 2 to 3 mm in diameter) were surface disinfested and plated on Rye A agar; five yielded fungal-like colonies that were subcultured on potato dextrose agar (PDA). One isolate was white and grew slowly (3 to 4 mm/day at 22 to 24°C). Three isolates were white and grew faster (10 to 12 mm/day at 22 to 24°C) in a chrysanthemal pattern. The fifth was a Fusarium sp. DNA of the white colonies was extracted and the internal transcribed spacer (ITS) region was sequenced using ITS1 (5′-TCCGTAGGTGAACCTGCGG-3′) and ITS4 (5′-TCCTCCGCTTATTGATATGC-3′) primers. The slow-growing morphotype had 99% identity to Phytophthora sp. isolate 92-209C (Accession No. EU106591) in GenBank but failed to induce symptoms in multiple inoculation tests. The fast-growing morphotype (Accession No. HQ398249) had 98% identity to Pythium sterilum UASWS0265 from declining alder stands in Poland (Accession No. DQ525089). Sequencing of the COXII gene using the FM66/FM58 primer set (3) yielded a product (Accession No. HQ721468) with 100% identity to P. sterilum GD32a from forest soil in Poland (Accession No. EF421185). Hyphae were hyaline, coenocytic, and 4 to 7 μm wide with some swellings at the tips (7 to 9 μm wide). No sporangia, oogonia, or antheridia were observed. Mycelium tested positive in the ELISA test described above. According to Agdia Inc., 10 of 19 tested Pythium spp. have shown similar cross reactivity. Pythium spp. are known to cause root rot of blueberries in Oregon (2). In British Columbia, P. sterilum was commonly isolated from roots of declining blueberry bushes (4). P. sterilum Belbahri & Lefort only reproduces asexually (1). Our isolate was similar but did not produce sporangia in water or on PDA, V8 juice agar, Rye A agar, or water agar. Roots of 10 2-month-old ‘Bluecrop’ cuttings were placed in an aqueous suspension of rinsed mycelium (0.1 g/ml) from 21-day-old cultures grown in V8 broth or in sterile deionized water (control). After 1 h, plants were potted in peat moss/perlite (2:1) or autoclaved sand (five each) and placed in a glasshouse at 25°C. After 7 days, inoculated plants in both soil types had wilted or collapsed with significant necrosis on the roots and primary shoot. Control plants showed no symptoms. In a similar experiment with 6-month-old plants in sand, symptoms appeared after 10 to 12 days. The pathogen was recovered from surface-disinfested root and stem sections of all inoculated plants but not control plants and its identity was confirmed by sequencing of the ITS region. To our knowledge, this is the first report of P. sterilum on blueberries in the United States. While this disease appears to be uncommon in Michigan, it is a potential cause of plant decline, the diagnosis of which may be complicated by cross reactivity in ELISA testing.
References: (1) L. Belbahri et al. FEMS Microbiol. Lett. 255:209, 2006. (2) D. R. Bryla and R. G. Linderman. HortScience 43:260, 2008. (3) F. N. Martin. Mycologia 92:711, 2000. (4) S. Sabaratnam. BC Plant Health Fund Final Report. B.C. Retrieved from http://www.agf.gov.bc.ca/cropprot/phf_final_report.pdf, 2008.