Assistant Professor of Biology Patricia Mowery was recently given a two year grant by the U. S. Department of Agriculture along with her collaborators at the New York State Agricultural Experimental Station. The grant enables Mowery to study Xylella fastidiosa, a bacterium that infects grape vines with Pierce’s Disease, causing the death of the plant.
Although the grapes in the Finger Lakes have not been affected due to cooler temperatures, the grapes of the Napa Valley have been infected. In South America, this bacterium has decimated orange crops, and could have dire consequences for the orange population of the United States.
One key component of the pathogenesis is the movement of X. fastidiosa within the grape sap. “It’s like the bacteria have a nose, they can “smell” where there is food,” explains Mowery, who spends her research time between the HWS campus and the Agricultural Experiment Station. “There are receptors that can sense food – and they go to where that food is. If we can figure out how the bacteria “smell,” perhaps we can work to prevent the disease.” They recently found that if the ability “to smell” was inhibited, Pierce’s disease diminished.
Mowery studied the bacterial movement of white blood cells during graduate school, and came across the opportunity to study X. fastidiosa by chance. Mowery was giving a talk on the movement of E. coli at the Agricultural Experiment Station where it had recently been discovered that X. fastidiosa is also a motile organism. More than familiar with the system of sensing and moving, Mowery was eager to help explore the bacterium causing the disease.
Although Pierce’s Disease does not prove an immediate threat to the grape crops of the Finger Lakes, it could be a major issue in the future. “As temperatures continue to rise, the disease is moving more and more north,” says Mowery.
Not only could the study hold significance for the nearby grape growing community, but it could prove useful for the study of human disease. “The more we learn about this, the more we can learn about other diseases,” explains Mowery. “For instance, although cholera is much more complex, piecing together this puzzle creates great foot holes for learning more about complex diseases that involve motile bacteria.”
As part of the grant, Mowery will be speaking to those studying the X. fastidiosa at a conference in San Diego this winter. The grant also allows for needed supplies, a laboratory assistant, and two student assistants during the summer.