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Plant pathology (also phytopathology) is the scientific study of plant diseases caused by pathogens (infectious organisms) and environmental conditions (physiological factors). Organisms that cause infectious disease include fungi, oomycetes, bacteria, viruses, viroids, virus-like organisms, phytoplasmas, protozoa, nematodes and parasitic plants. Not included are ectoparasites like insects, mites, vertebrate, or other pests that affect plant health by consumption of plant tissues. Plant pathology also involves the study of pathogen identification, disease etiology, disease cycles, economic impact, plant disease epidemiology, plant disease resistance, how plant diseases affect humans and animals, pathosystem genetics, and management of plant diseases.
The fungi reproduce both sexually and asexually via the production of spores and other structures. Spores may be spread long distances by air or water, or they may be soil borne. Many soil inhabiting fungi are capable of living saprotrophically, carrying out the part of their lifecycle in the soil. These are known as facultative saprotrophs.
Biotrophic fungal pathogens colonize living plant tissue and obtain nutrients from living host cells. Necrotrophic fungal pathogens infect and kill host tissue and extract nutrients from the dead host cells. See Powdery Mildew and Rice Blast images below.
Significant fungal plant pathogens include:
The oomycetes are not true fungi but are fungus-like organisms. They include some of the most destructive plant pathogens including the genus Phytophthora, which includes the causal agents of potato late blight and sudden oak death. Particular species of oomycetes are responsible for root rot.
Despite not being closely related to the fungi, the oomycetes have developed very similar infection strategies. Oomycetes are capable of using effector proteins to turn off a plant's defenses in its infection process. Plant pathologists commonly group them with fungal pathogens.
Significant oomycete plant pathogens
Most bacteria that are associated with plants are actually saprotrophic, and do no harm to the plant itself. However, a small number, around 100 known species, are able to cause disease. Bacterial diseases are much more prevalent in sub-tropical and tropical regions of the world.
Most plant pathogenic bacteria are rod-shaped (bacilli). In order to be able to colonize the plant they have specific pathogenicity factors. Five main types of bacterial pathogenicity factors are known: uses of Cell wall-degrading enzymes, Toxins, Effector proteins, Phytohormones and Exopolysaccharides
Pathogens such as Erwinia, use Cell wall-degrading enzymes to cause soft rot. Agrobacterium changes the level of auxins to cause tumours with phytohormones. Exopolysaccharides are produced by bacteria and block xylem vessels, often leading to the death of the plant.
Significant bacterial plant pathogens:
Phytoplasma and Spiroplasma are a genre of bacteria that lack cell walls, and are related to the mycoplasmas, which are human pathogens. Together they are referred to as the mollicutes. They also tend to have smaller genomes than most other bacteria. They are normally transmitted by sap-sucking insects, being transferred into the plants phloem where it reproduces.
There are many types of plant virus, and some are even asymptomatic. Under normal circumstances, plant viruses cause only a loss of crop yield. Therefore, it is not economically viable to try to control them, the exception being when they infect perennial species, such as fruit trees.
Most plant viruses have small, single-stranded RNA genomes. However some plant viruses also have double stranded RNA or single or double stranded DNA genomes. These genomes may encode only three or four proteins: a replicase, a coat protein, a movement protein, in order to allow cell to cell movement through plasmodesmata, and sometimes a protein that allows transmission by a vector. Plant viruses can have several more proteins and employ many different molecular translation methods.
Plant viruses must be transmitted from plant to plant by a vector. This is often by an insect (for example, aphids), but some fungi, nematodes, and protozoa have been shown to be viral vectors. In many cases, the insect and virus are specific for virus transmission such as the beet leafhopper that transmits the curly top virus causing disease in several crop plants.
Nematodes are small, multicellular wormlike creatures. Many live freely in the soil, but there are some species that parasitize plant roots. They are a problem in tropical and subtropical regions of the world, where they may infect crops. Potato cyst nematodes (Globodera pallida and G. rostochiensis) are widely distributed in Europe and North and South America and cause $300 million worth of damage in Europe every year. Root knot nematodes have quite a large host range, whereas cyst nematodes tend to be able to infect only a few species. Nematodes are able to cause radical changes in root cells in order to facilitate their lifestyle.
There are a few examples of plant diseases caused by protozoa. They are transmitted as zoospores that are very durable, and may be able to survive in a resting state in the soil for many years. They have also been shown to transmit plant viruses.
Parasitic plants such as mistletoe and dodder are included in the study of phytopathology. Dodder, for example, is used as a conduit either for the transmission of viruses or virus-like agents from a host plant to a plant that is not typically a host or for an agent that is not graft-transmissible.
Significant abiotic disorders can be caused by:
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