Robert M. Harveson, Extension Plant Pathologist
Panhandle R&E Center, Scottsbluff
Goss’ wilt and leaf blight is a destructive bacterial disease of corn, caused by Clavibacter michiganensis subsp. nebraskense. It was first identified in 1969 from Dawson County near Lexington making it a true Nebraska native.
Over the next decade, it was identified from at least 53 other counties in Nebraska and also spread into Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, and Colorado. The disease was eventually identified from additional U.S. corn-growing states before disappearing in the mid-1980s just as suddenly as it first appeared.
Bacterial wilt of dry beans, caused by Curtobacterium flaccumfaciens pv. flaccumfaciens, has been a serious but irregular disease problem since its initial discovery in 1922 from South Dakota. During the 1940s, it expanded in incidence throughout the bean-producing states, most notably in the high plains.
The disease persisted into the early 1970s, becoming an endemic and economically important production constraint in Nebraska, before disappearing by the early 1980s, similarly to Goss’ wilt.
The two pathogens share similar characteristics. They are related, and in fact were once classified in the same genus (Corynebacterium), primarily due to a superficially similar particle shape, referred to as “coryneform.” This term today is used to informally describe members of a variable group of bacteria consisting of irregular, short rods that may be slightly curved, bent, or club-shaped. This characteristic trait gives the genus its name from the Greek noun “koruna” or “club.”
They are now taxonomically divided into two genera, Clavibacter and Curtobacterium. The Goss’ wilt pathogen, Clavibacter, produces rods that are slightly thinner and longer than the shorter, fatter rods characteristic of Curtobacterium dry bean wilt (see photo for comparison). In addition to particle morphology differences, these two pathogens also differ in biochemical and DNA characteristics and cell wall composition, further justifying their separation into different groups.
Favorable conditions for disease development and pathogen survival
Disease for both pathogens is enhanced by injury or some form of stress placed on plants. In this region, these conditions are often provided by storms consisting of driving rain, hail, high winds, and sandblasting.
Both bacterial pathogens can also become systemic, moving into and blocking water translocation within the vascular system of plants, resulting in the wilting symptoms. Both pathogens also readily survive in infected residue on the soil surface, serving as the primary inoculum source for future crops. Therefore, infection and spread throughout fields is increased by reduced-tillage practices, continuous cropping, tissue injury on leaves, and sprinkler irrigation or rainfall.
Once infection occurs, optimal temperatures for disease development is 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The pathogens are also carried in seeds, both on the outside of the seed coat and internally, which may also explain its movement and distribution throughout the growing regions of the United States.
During mid-2000s, both pathogens re-emerged, causing serious production problems across this region wherever corn or beans were grown. The resurrection of both diseases in Nebraska and other areas of the High Plains after a long absence was puzzling. However, after substantially studying of both diseases since 2003-04, we have now developed several hypotheses as to why these diseases seemingly re-emerged within the same general time frame.
Factors responsible for disease outbreaks?
Perhaps the most influential factor responsible for the new epidemics was the change in cultural practices adopted in this region. Within the last 20-plus years, the majority of area producers introduced some form of reduced tillage into their systems. Combining this practice with the simultaneous, region-wide increase in center-pivot irrigation systems would also improve survival, infection, and dispersal of the pathogen within fields.
Furthermore, for Goss’ wilt, most growers quit using the available disease-resistant varieties. This practice largely resolved the problem in the 1980s, and our investigations in the mid-2000s revealed a strong correlation between the reappearance of the disease and the reduced availability and utilization of resistant varieties.
For the bean wilt, this was not as much of a factor. Only the great northern variety Emerson had disease resistance, but it was a specialty variety, grown for a target market in southern Europe, and therefore its production was limited.
Another factor in this re-emergence story could be explained conjecturally by the climatic patterns observed throughout the region over this same period. The mid-2000s were characterized by warmer winters, and an extended drought with increasingly higher summer temperatures during the growing season. These factors definitely favor both diseases.
Our studies suggest that it is no coincidence that these pathogens re-emerged widely throughout this region at roughly the same time. It seems likely that neither disease completely disappeared, but survived at low levels on weed species or infected crop residues. We additionally theorized that neither disease was noticed until the mid-2000s because in the years previously, the plowing of fields was commonplace, removing a major mechanism for pathogen survival.
Over this same time period, reduced tillage has become widespread, as has the addition of more center pivots in production fields, both of which enhance survival and spread within fields. Since both diseases are more problematic under elevated levels of plant stress, it is also possible that the drought and higher summer temperatures in the mid- 2000’s also played a pivotal role.
In summary, we have hypothesized that the combination of environmental stress and changes in cultural practices were cumulatively responsible for the return of these diseases in the Central High Plains in the mid-2000s.