2 December 2019

Using pathogen-specific viruses to control pathogen outbreaks

Precision medicine for plants

Kas vol met tomaten die verwoest zijn door bruinrot. Tot op heden is er geen remedie beschikbaar. Foto: Zhong Wei)
Greenhouse full of tomatoes destroyed by Ralstonia. To date no control method is available. (photo: Zhong Wei)

Researchers from the Utrecht University, in collaboration with colleagues at the University of York (UK) and the Nanjing Agricultural University (China) have developed a new technology to selectively destroy the pathogen that causes the devastating wilt disease without side effects on other beneficial microorganisms.

Bacterial wilt disease

Bacterial wilt disease caused by Ralstonia solanacearum infects several plants including tomatoes, potatoes, banana and roses. It causes huge economic losses around the world and to date no control method is available.

“Current management of plant diseases rely on aggressive chemicals. These treatments are however extremely damaging to beneficial microorganisms that naturally protect plants. As a results, fumigation only provides a brief relieve, but pathogens outbreaks become worse and worse after every treatment”, plant biologist Alexandre Jousset from the Institute of Environmental Biology at Utrecht University explains.

Precision medicine

“Here, we developed a novel approach using bacteriophages: special viruses that only eat up pathogenic bacteria. This precision medicine is fully natural and highly efficient”, Jousset says. This new technology provides a long-lasting protection by destroying the pathogen while allowing soil life to recover. Even if pathogens survive the treatments, they are so weakened that they cannot compete anymore with natural microbes and go extinct. The researchers publish their new technology 2 December in Nature Biotechnology.


Bacterial plant diseases such as Ralstonia, but also Clavibacter, Xyllela, Xanthomonas or Erwinia, are a major issue for the Dutch top sectors agrifood and horticulture. By providing for the first time a solution to these scourges, this work forms the base of highly efficient and sustainable plant protection methods that make pesticides redundant.

Dr. Jousset is currently testing the use of phages to protect crops against Ralstonia in the context of a TKI top sector project and a EU project in collaboration with partners in the Netherlands, EU, Colombia and China.


Phage combination therapies for bacterial wilt disease in tomato. Nature Biotechnology, 2 december 2019. Xiaofang Wang, Zhong Wei, Keming Yang, Jiangning Wang, Alexandre Jousset*, Yangchun Xu, Qirong Shen and Ville-Petri Friman. DOI: 10.1038/s41587-019-0328-3

*Author affiliated with Utrecht University