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Ash dieback gene map could help prevent disease wiping out UK's ash trees

A new gene map could help prevent the UK's ash trees from being wiped out by a devastating fungal disease.

Scientists hope the ash tree genome will lead to effective ways of fighting the infection that has already caused widespread damage in continental Europe.

Ash dieback, also known as Chalara, is caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. Young trees are especially vulnerable, suffering leaf loss and bark damage that rapidly prove fatal.

Since appearing in Poland in 1992, the infection has swept westwards throughout Europe.

The first British case of ash dieback was reported in Buckinghamshire in 2012 and another outbreak was confirmed in the Peak District in July 2015.

Experts fear a major epidemic could kill 48 million of the UK's 130 million ash trees and potentially change the face of the British countryside. The ash makes up around 5.5% of Britain's woodland compared with 2% in continental Europe.

Losing large numbers of ash trees could also have knock-on effects that would be damaging to a wide range of other plant and animal species.

The team from the Royal Botanic Gardens (RBG) at Kew, west London, hopes to identify genes that may be associated with resistance to ash dieback.

Project leader Dr Richard Buggs, who led the work at Queen Mary, University of London, said: "This is the first time a plant genome has been rapidly sequenced in response to an emerging disease threat, leading to an assessment of the susceptibility of as-yet uninfected populations.

"Kew is continuing to work with the latest genomic technologies to increase the armoury of methods that can be deployed against plant pests and pathogens."

The research is published in the latest issue of Nature journal.

The scientists worked out the genetic code of one British ash tree and compared it with that of 37 other ash trees from around Europe.

Early results offer hope by suggesting that British trees may be less susceptible to ash dieback than their counterparts in Denmark.

The genome sequence will also aid efforts to combat the emerald ash borer beetle, which has killed hundreds of millions of ash trees in North America, say the researchers.

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