Cucumber (Cucumis sativus) has been cultivated for over 3,000 years. Its flowers are either male (producing pollen) or female (producing cucumbers), and rely on insect pollination for the fruit to develop.
Viruses: master manipulators
All plants can catch diseases, which can be caused by viruses. Insects such as aphids can pick up virus particles when feeding on sap from an infected plant, then transmit it to other plants. This causes big problems for farmers, as they cannot sell diseased crops.
Some viruses spread faster by manipulating insect behaviour. One way of doing this is an ‘attract and deter’ method: the virus hijacks the plant to produce scents which attract insects, plus distasteful chemicals which deter them from feeding for too long. Insects are more likely to visit an infected plant and pick up virus particles, but also more likely to leave quickly, transmitting the virus between plants.
Aphids can transmit viruses found in plant sap.
Cucumber mosaic virus
One virus which uses the ‘attract and deter’ method is cucumber mosaic virus (CMV). It is transmitted by aphids and, despite its name, infects more than just cucumbers, having the widest host plant range of any plant virus. It exists on every continent on Earth, including Antarctica, and can cause 10–20% loss of crop yield. However, we know little about how CMV’s manipulation of insect behaviour affects viral severity and extent in the long term and at large scale.
Elin Falla (Department of Plant Sciences)
Elin’s research uses computer modelling to track the spread of disease through plant populations. Tweaking the behaviour of virtual aphids helps her understand how insect behaviour affects spread of CMV and other viral diseases in the real world. She is also passionate about ensuring future food security, using her models to develop strategies to reduce crop loss from disease.