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Researching the relationship between flies and fire blight for the apple industry

Matt Boucher is a doctoral student in the field of entomology studying under the guidance of entomology professor Greg Loeb. Boucher has been the recipient of the Michael Villani Graduate Student Fellowship, the George S. Gyrisco Award for Applied Research and the Paul J. Chapman Graduate Student Fellowship award. His research is helping apple growers in New York better understand the role flies can play in the overall health of their orchard ecosystem.

What excites you about the program at Cornell AgriTech?

The opportunity to work at a nexus of research and communication excites me as a graduate student. Our food system is in near constant conflict, constrained by social, environmental and biological pressures. Managing conflict with agricultural systems is no easy task and requires innovation that drives sustainability and equity within the system. It is not enough to simply do the research that improves the system. The message needs to be distributed to farmers, consumers and everyone in between in a reliable, trusted manner. I find it rewarding to be part of the Cornell AgriTech community that offers a communication component. Engaged graduate workers learn not only what it means to be an excellent scientist but also how to communicate and collaborate with the agricultural community. Our work can only go as far as we can effectively communicate it, and the stakeholder-based approach to research engrained in the mission at Cornell AgriTech ensures that future leaders in the field are equipped with the communication tools to actually lead.

What is the focus of your research?

I study a serious disease of rosaceous crops called fire blight, caused by the bacterium Erwinia amylovora. Specifically, we’re interested in how orchard-dwelling flies acquire and transmit this bacterium to healthy apple trees and how the disease changes the behavior of flies to enhance contact between insect and bacteria. This bacterium can colonize any natural opening or wound on the plant surface, and, once inside, multiplies to such high numbers that it ruptures the plant surface. A sugar rich bacterial laden ooze then exudes from that rupture, and flies feed on the ooze, acquiring the bacteria in the process. From there, the dynamics of transmission by flies is poorly understood. Does a fly actively or passively transmit the bacteria to a new host? Does it need help in the form of insects or weather to create the entry point that the bacteria would ultimately colonize? Can the bacteria persist long enough in the fly to be transmitted or even cause disease in the fly itself? These are all questions that we’re investigating to better define the role of flies in the dissemination of this disease.

What is the most interesting discovery you’ve made through your research?

I think the most interesting thing we’ve learned is that dissemination of Erwinia amylovora by flies is quite a dynamic process. Flies appear to be one of the primary disseminators of this disease, acquiring the bacteria from ooze and harboring it for several days after initial contact. We’re still learning how this translates into successful infection in healthy plant tissue, but that along with the density and staying power of flies in an orchard suggests that the negative effect on orchard productivity could be monumental. The relationship between flies and fire blight has only sporadically been investigated over the course of this disease’s history, and we feel that this relationship is finally getting its day in the sun. There’s still a lot to learn in this system. We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can learn, but we’ve at least clarified something that’s flown under the radar for nearly 200 years of study in this disease.

In what ways do you hope your research will help growers in New York?

My hope is that New York apple growers will better understand the threat that flies pose in their orchards and will work with future graduate students and faculty to develop sustainable, precision management strategies using the advancements we have made. It may be easy for growers to ignore these flies because they don’t cause immediate visual indications of disease, and it’s important for them to understand that they can indeed contribute to fire blight.

How do you think graduate students most benefit from doing their research at Cornell AgriTech?

Cornell AgriTech has a lot to offer graduate workers, but I think primarily it offers the space to build a community that supports your goals, your health, and lets you develop the intangibles that make you a unique contributor in academic and social spaces. Your community here extends beyond the typical: you build lasting relationships with staff and get to know virtually everyone in your building on a first-name basis.

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