Evaluation of sugarcane varieties for resistance to ratoon stunting disease.
Ratoon stunting disease (RSD), caused by the bacterium Leifsonia xyli subsp xyli, is well established in most sugarcane growing regions of the world and is considered to cause more yield losses worldwide than any other sugarcane disease (Hughes, 1974). In South Africa, field trials have demonstrated that yield reductions under rainfed conditions can exceed 40% in highly susceptible varieties (Bailey and Bechet, 1986). When cane is grown under irrigation, yield losses are less noticeable but still significant in many varieties (Bailey and Bechet, 1995). It is estimated that RSD currently results in a one percent reduction in industrial production in South Africa and between 10 and 20% in other African countries where South African varieties are grown (Bailey and McFarlane, 1999; Rutherford et al., 2003). For many years, the reaction of different sugarcane varieties to RSD has been based on large, replicated yield loss trials grown over a number of years under rainfed and irrigated conditions. Although these trials provide valuable information, they are time-consuming and require large areas of uniform land. They are therefore not suitable for incorporation into a routine disease screening programme in which large numbers of genotypes are assessed for their reactions to the important diseases occurring in the industry. As a result, the susceptibility of new commercial varieties to RSD is only known several years after release to the growers. The main objective of this study was to establish a suitable method to reliably evaluate sugarcane genotypes for RSD resistance as part of the plant breeding and selection programme. Emphasis was placed on the use of the tissue blot immunoassay (TBlA) developed by Harrison and Davis (1988) and modified by Davis et al (1994), in relation to the more traditional methods of variety assessment, such as the rate of spread of RSD in the field at harvest and yield loss trials. Although the immunoassay protocol was not altered, slight modifications to the blotting procedure resulted in clearer blots that were easier to interpret. Internode position and the age of the cane were shown to have a marked effect on the extent of colonisation and ultimately the RSD resistance rating. A trial investigating the effect of the extent of colonisation on the rate of spread of RSD at harvest was conducted and showed that the relationship between spread and colonisation was highly significant. This indicated that RSD spread more rapidly through varieties such as N14 and N22 that supported high populations of L. xyli subsp xyli. The control plots in the same trial provided useful information on the extent of colonisation in the twelve varieties planted. In another trial, the effect of RSD on the yield components of six commercially grown varieties was investigated and TBIA was also conducted to compare the two methods of variety assessment. The relationship between yield loss and the extent of colonisation was significant in both the plant and first ratoon crops. TBIA produced consistent results and the ranking of the six varieties was virtually identical, despite the different growing conditions during the two crop cycles. In an attempt to screen large numbers of genotypes under controlled glasshouse conditions, .TBIA was also tested on RSD-infected sugarcane transplants (seedlings). The results of this trial were variable and could not be reliably used as a screening tool. Based on the findings of this study, TBIA has now been adopted as a quicker and cheaper alternative to immunofluorescence microscopy for diagnosing RSD in sugarcane transplants. More importantly, TBIA has been accepted as a method of screening genotypes routinely for resistance to RSD and the first screening trial was planted in November 2002. It will now be possible to inform sugarcane growers of the RSD status of the new varieties as they are released, enabling them to make more informed decisions on how to manage each variety. This information will also be valuable when selecting parents in the crossing programme, with a long term view of improving the general resistance of commercially grown varieties to RSD. This should ultimately result in a substantial reduction in RSD levels in the industry.