Scientists Fervent To Find Cure For Deadly Sugarcane Virus

Sugarcane yellow leaf virus symptoms seen in leaves
Yellow leaf virus is seen streaking down the mid-ribs of these sugarcane specimens.
Photo by Philippe Rott, UF/IFAS

University of Florida researchers are working to find a solution or develop resistant varieties for a virus sacking sugarcane, and just recently sorghum, throughout the Everglades Agricultural Area.

The sugarcane yellow leaf virus, first found in Florida in 1993, can be identified by a yellow stripe down the middle of sugarcane leaves, according to Philippe Rott, a Professor of Plant Pathology at the UF/IFAS Everglades Research and Education Center (EREC) in Belle Glade. “The virus travels down the vascular bundle of the plant and interferes with the movement of nutrients,” he says. “This, in turn, stunts the growth of the plant.”

The virus is carried by aphids, confirms Gregg Nuessly, UF/IFAS Professor of Entomology and Director of EREC. While Nuessly’s and Rott’s research has identified the carrier of the virus, trials are in progress to see if insecticides are effective at killing the aphid.

One factor still remains unknown as researchers are not sure if the same aphid is attacking both sugarcane and sorghum, Nuessly said. “We may have to deal with the same or two different populations of the aphid,” he said.

To date, the sugarcane yellow leaf virus has already infected sugarcane in Florida, Louisiana, Hawaii, Texas, and in numerous sugarcane-producing countries around the world. The virus is blamed for a loss of 25% of sugarcane yields in Brazil, and a 10% drop in yields in Florida. The impact of the virus on sorghum remains to be determined.

“We will not be able to eradicate the virus before it spreads to other states growing sorghum, because the virus also is present in weed sorghum and it is easily spread by the aphids,” Rott said. “But our ultimate goal is to develop resistant varieties that cannot be infected or can at least tolerate the virus.”

Florida produces more than 50% of all sugarcane in the U.S., making it the largest producer in the nation.

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