A quarter of Australia’s sunflower production is from the central highlands region of Queensland and is currently worth six million dollars ($AUD) annually. From the early 2000s a severe necrosis disorder of unknown aetiology was affecting large areas of sunflower crops in central Queensland, leading to annual losses of up to 20 %. Other crops such as mung bean and cotton were also affected. This PhD study was undertaken to determine if the causal agent of the necrosis disorder was of viral origin and, if so, to characterise its genetic diversity, biology and disease cycle, and to develop effective control strategies.
The research described in this thesis identified Tobacco streak virus (TSV; genus Ilarvirus, family Bromoviridae) as the causal agent of the previously unidentified necrosis disorder of sunflower in central Queensland. TSV was also the cause of commonly found diseases in a range of other crops in the same region including cotton, chickpea and mung bean. This was the first report from Australia of natural field infections of TSV from these four crops.
TSV strains have previously been reported from other regions of Australia in several hosts based on serological and host range studies. In order to determine the relatedness of previously reported TSV strains with TSV from central Queensland, we characterised the genetic diversity of the known TSV strains from Australia. We identified two genetically distinct TSV strains from central Queensland and named them based on their major alternative hosts, TSV-parthenium from Parthenium hysterophorus and TSV-crownbeard from Verbesina encelioides. They share only 81 % total-genome nucleotide sequence identity. In addition to TSV-parthenium and TSV-crownbeard from central Queensland, we also described the complete genomes of two other ilarvirus species. This proved that previously reported TSV strains, TSV-S isolated from strawberry and TSV-Ag from Ageratum houstonianum, were actually the first record of Strawberry necrotic shock virus from Australia, and a new subgroup 1 ilarvirus, Ageratum latent virus. Our results confirmed that the TSV strains found in central Queensland were not related to previously described strains from Australia and may represent new incursions. This is the first report of the genetic diversity within subgroup 1 ilarviruses from Australia.
Based on field observations we hypothesised that parthenium and crownbeard were acting as symptomless hosts of TSV-parthenium and TSV-crownbeard, respectively. We developed strain-specific multiplex PCRs for the three RNA segments to accurately characterise the range of naturally infected hosts across central Queensland. Results described in this thesis show compelling evidence that parthenium and crownbeard are the major (symptomless) alternative hosts of TSV-parthenium and TSV-crownbeard. While both TSV strains had wide natural host ranges, the geographical distribution of each strain was closely associated with the respective distribution of their major alternative hosts. Both TSV strains were commonly found across large areas of central Queensland, but we only found strong evidence for the TSV-parthenium strain being associated with major disease outbreaks in nearby crops.
The findings from this study demonstrate that both TSV-parthenium and TSV-crownbeard have similar life cycles but some critical differences. We found both TSV strains to be highly seed transmitted from their respective major alternative hosts from naturally infected mother plants and survived in seed for more than 2 years. We conclusively demonstrated that both TSV strains were readily transmitted via virus-infected pollen taken from the major alternative hosts. This transmission was facilitated by the most commonly collected thrips species, Frankliniella schultzei and Microcephalothrips abdominalis. These results illustrate the importance of seed transmission and efficient thrips vector species for the effective survival of these TSV strains in an often harsh environment and enables the rapid development of TSV disease epidemics in surrounding crops.
Results from field surveys and inoculation tests indicate that parthenium is a poor host of TSV-crownbeard. By contrast, crownbeard was naturally infected by, and an experimental host of TSV-parthenium. However, this infection combination resulted in non-viable crownbeard seed. These differences appear to be an effective biological barrier that largely restricts these two TSV strains to their respective major alternative hosts.
Based on our field observations we hypothesised that there were differences in relative tolerance to TSV infection between different sunflower hybrids and that seasonal variation in disease levels was related to rainfall in the critical early crop stage. Results from our field trials conducted over multiple years conclusively demonstrated significant differences in tolerance to natural infections of TSV-parthenium in a wide range of sunflower hybrids. Glasshouse tests indicate the resistance to TSV-parthenium identified in the sunflower hybrids is also likely to be effective against TSV-crownbeard. We found a significant negative association between TSV disease incidence in sunflowers and accumulated rainfall in the months of March and April with increasing rainfall resulting in reduced levels of disease. Our results indicate that the use of tolerant sunflower germplasm will be a critical strategy to minimise the risk of TSV epidemics in sunflower.