Establishing the Cause of Disease

The correct diagnosis of a plant disease and its cause is not always an easy task. In the first instance symptoms may be ill defined which make their association with any organism problematic (Derrick and Timmer, 2000) and, secondly, plants grow in environments which are notably non-sterile. In particular, besides supporting a microflora on their aerial parts, the phylloplane, they are rooted in soil which may contain in excess of 1 million organisms per gram. The plant pathologist is therefore faced with trying to determine which, if any, of the organisms associated with the diseased plant is responsible for the symptoms. This is normally achieved by the application of the postulates of Robert Koch, a German bacteriologist of the 19th century, which for plant pathogens may be stated as follows:

  1. The suspected causal organism must be constantly associated with symptoms of the disease.
  2. The suspected causal organism must be isolated and grown in pure culture.
  3. When healthy test plants are inoculated with pure cultures of the suspected causal organism they must reproduce at least some of the symptoms of the disease.
  4. The suspected causal organism must be re isolated from the plant and shown to be identical with the organism originally isolated.

Clearly, these criteria can only be met with organisms that can be cultured, ruling out all obligate pathogens which include a number of important fungi, many phytoplasmas and all viruses and viroids. Establishing these organisms as causal agents of disease usually involves purification of the suspected agent rather than culture and the demonstration that these purified preparations reproduce at least some of the disease symptoms.

Reference: Introduction to Plant Pathology. Richard N. Strange. 2003. John Wiley and Sons Ltd.

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