Waging war on a grapevine epidemic … with maths

Tuesday, 21 October, 2014

A University of Sydney researcher has returned to his home town in Italy to help save century-old Italian grapevines currently being ravaged by an aggressive insect-borne disease. His weapon of choice: mathematical modelling.

Dr Federico Maggi, an environmental engineer in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies, has spent three months in Piedmont, Italy, researching better methods for ridding the region of Flavescence Dorée (FD) - or ‘grapevine yellows’.

Together with Prof. Domenico Bosco, an internationally recognised entomologist working at the University of Torino, Dr Maggi studies the progression and behaviour of the FD epidemic occurring in the Mediterranean grapevine plant Vitis vinifera.

The disease is extremely destructive to grapevines and is causing growing concern to the wine producers of northern Italy and other regions in Europe. The wine produced in Piedmont is a sizeable contributor to the Italian economy, especially as it borders France and Switzerland.

“FD is reaching epidemic portions in some regions. The plant pathogen is being transmitted by the tiny leaf hopping insect, scaphoideus titanus. It is destroying species of grapes that have been around for centuries and have produced some of Italy’s most popular boutique wines,” explains Dr Maggi.

Dr Maggi has been creating a mathematical model for Piedmont’s region that can be used to provide estimates of the epidemic’s progression under various agronomic practices, epidemic mitigation strategies and environmental conditions. The model can guide the Regional Administration to optimise their operations to control the expansion of the FD disease.

If successful, the approach can also be applied to similar plant diseases in Australia such as Pierce’s disease.

“Mathematical models of these insect-borne plant diseases are an important tool in helping to predict the progression of an epidemic disease, and they can assist in the decision-making when control strategies are to be implemented in the field,” states Dr Maggi.

The work recently conducted represents a unique suite of governing equations, tested on existing independent data.

“It sets the basis for further modelling advances and possible applications that can investigate effectiveness of real-case epidemics control strategies and scenarios,” says Dr Maggi.

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