Inside the B.C. agritech link up saving the province’s blueberry crop
A mystery illness is running through one of the province’s key agricultural drivers. Genome BC, the BC Blueberry Council, and SFU are teaming up to get to the bottom of it.
Blueberries play an important role in my family gatherings. My wife’s grandmother makes an extraordinary blueberry pie that comes complete with a recipe that is more meditation guide than cookbook. “You’ll know when it’s ready,” she says of ideal crust consistency. “You’ll just feel it.” As much as I love the crust, the berries are the real star of the show.
Blueberries provide significant economic and cultural value to the province; more than 90 percent of Canada’s highbush blueberries are grown in B.C. They are the region’s largest berry crop in terms of value and production volume. According to the BC Blueberry Council, the province produces 77 million kilograms of berries annually. In 2019, $273 million in blueberries were exported to 20 markets, making blueberries one of the top local agricultural exports.
But those berries are currently shrouded in mystery illness. Like a group of chain-smoking PI’s stuck in a 1940s film noir, some of the province’s finest innovators are coming together to act as plant detectives to save my family’s summer dessert of choice...
…well, actually, to save an important slice of the province’s economic pie.
Eric Gerbrandt, the BC Blueberry Council’s research director, notes that the unknown sickness is a recent phenomenon. The Council has tracked viruses that impact the province’s economy since the turn of the century. That early work has created an effective biological filing cabinet for virus research. And like many a filing cabinet — or at least the paper that I hoard — it collected dust. According to Gerbrandt, they didn’t need to do much work on it for over a decade. Then, in 2018, B.C.’s blueberry crop reached an infection inflection point. Years before COVID was en vogue, the BC Blueberry Council was virus hunting.
As Gerbrandt saw an increase in pathologies, he got to work — building out a team to get to the bottom of what he was noticing in the field. He and his colleagues at the Council were puzzled at the cause of the uptick in infection. “Were there new viruses out there?” he remembers thinking. “Were there new strains of the existing viruses that we weren't able to detect with a given diagnostic?” To get to the bottom of it, he initiated a project with Jim Mattsson, associate professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Simon Fraser University, who became the lead researcher on the project. Eventually the pair connected with Genome BC. From that latter organization’s viewpoint, it was a perfect marriage.
“That’s where Genome BC’s wheelhouse is,” says David Charest, the project’s manager for the genomics non-profit. “It’s perfect for that kind of research. And that's the type of thing we want to find more of: working with industry organizations like the Blueberry Council, linking them up with existing partners, and then getting that technology in the [right] hands. It comes full circle. If you talked to me 20 years ago, it would have been a different thing. But now we're all [about] applied and translational research. So that's where we come in.”
This sets the scene for the current state of blueberry research province-wide. Now that we’ve met the detectives, let’s open their case files. There are two main viruses, known as shock and scorch. For me, the viruses are on the opposite end of the familiarity spectrum to the pie that lands on the family table post-meal. I relayed my ignorance to Gerbrandt who brought me up to speed. But, not before an important disclaimer. “Please make it clear to your audience that these are not things that have any threat to human health,” he points out. I felt better about eating the pie, but farmers are unable to breathe the same sigh of relief.
There are two key differences between shock and scorch. Scorch viruses are aphid-transmitted, while shock viruses are transmitted by pollen. But here’s where the differences become more dire: Scorch viruses can be lethal.
While blueberry plants suffering from shock viruses generally recover, scorch virus is hard for the plant to beat. Plus, “we don't have any sources of genetic resistance to scorch; we just have varieties that can tolerate the virus to a certain extent,” Gerbrandt explains. “And then on the shock side of things, there's a genetic range of variability for the quickness with which varieties will get shock. So it's basically just this: don't plant the varieties that get shock very quickly. That’s how to deal with that one.”
Playing detective, Gerbrandt and his team must solve the curious caper of the missing positives. A blueberry expert like Gerbrandt can see that the plants are in distress. But the tests come back as what the team calls “double negatives:” Researchers see virus symptoms in the field and think it's either shock or scorch, but once the test is run and it comes back, the result is a negative for both. This gave the scientists the idea that they need to look into whether there are new strains that are not getting picked up by the current diagnostics. Another key area is to determine if there are additional viruses at play, as well.
“In 2020, for instance, 18 percent of samples from damaged plants tested negative for both the blueberry scorch virus and blueberry shock virus. We need to know what is affecting these blueberry bushes to find out how to reduce the spread of disease,” said Mattsson in a statement.
Once the cause is found, B.C.-based Phyto Diagnostics, a third-party lab that the province’s farmers use to test for shock and scorch viruses, will develop a test for the new virus using genomic information. “We send [them] thousands of samples every year. So they’re well connected with the BC Blueberry Council and with the berry sector in general,” Gerbrandt says. Phyto even worked together with Genome BC previously, researching strawberries.
One of the main goals of the study is to create a tech solution for the masses. “We don't want to create a tool that then just sits in Jim Mattsson's office with nowhere to go,” Charest quips. “So, that’s what we're looking for: there's got to be uptake and utility for the technology.”
To find the solution will be a two-year research odyssey. The group embarked on the project in June and will work well into 2024. The aim is to get to the point where the collective can produce some good, practical results for the problem. But, the team is also going two years into the past. The sampling for this project was actually conducted by Gerbrandt back in 2020. He and his colleagues surveyed the Fraser Valley and collected hundreds of different blueberry leaf samples. Right now, the group seeks to collaborate with either Ph.D. students or postdoctoral fellows studying bioinformatics to look at the sequences of these samples to figure out what's going on.
“What's really important here is that without the tools, you can't ask the biological questions, right?” Charest adds. “Once you have some tools, you can start to explore more deeply and broadly these kinds of [mysteries]. You can distinguish different viruses in different stages of plant development. You can go in and start doing investigations that are far more complex than just observation.”
As a place for observation, or for investigation, or for mystery hunting, the berry-rich fields of Abbotsford are a far cry from the crime-riddled streets of 1940s Los Angeles. Yet, the modern day detectives in our backyard march on. They’ll rely on a hallmark of B.C.’s tech community — collaboration — as they do so. To repurpose a sentiment from the film noir classic The Big Sleep, “dead blueberries are heavier than broken hearts.” This latest B.C. tech link up is working to get to the bottom of it.
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