What is VIRTIGATION?
Every year, viral diseases wreak havoc on tomato and cucurbit crops worldwide, destroying in Europe alone billions of EUR in harvest. The EU-funded VIRTIGATION project is on a mission to combat this viral crop destruction and safeguard tomatoes and cucurbits.
Viral diseases are not only affecting European fields and greenhouses: across the globe, from Morocco, Israel to India, tomatoes and cucurbits are vital staple crops that are under threat. Colossal losses in harvests have been reported, ranging from 15% to entire crop destruction. As the world needs to increase its food production by at least half by 2050 to feed a growing population, mitigating the devastating impact of plant diseases is essential to ensure sufficient food supply, both in quantity and quality.
In response to this global threat, VIRTIGATION – Emerging viral diseases in tomatoes and cucurbits: implementation of mitigation strategies for durable disease management -, is a new Horizon 2020 project on a mission to protect tomatoes and cucurbits in Northern Europe and the Mediterranean Basin. In collaboration with partners from key EU neighboring areas and trade partners across the globe – Morocco, Israel and India – VIRTIGATION will develop short-, medium- and long-term solutions to the emerging viral diseases caused by begomoviruses (whitefly-transmitted) and tobamoviruses (mechanically transmitted) on tomato and cucurbit crops.
The VIRTIGATION project will further increase the know-how for better control and management of these viral diseases in the entire tomato and cucurbit value chain, thanks to its multi-actor approach anchored in co-creation and co-design.
VIRTIGATION is running for 4 years (June 2021 – May 2025) and is coordinated by the Laboratory for Tropical Crop Improvement at the Department of Biosystems of KU Leuven (Belgium).
The project approach
VIRTIGATION builds on increasing knowledge about the biology, pathways of entry and spread of plant viruses, as well as the development of new tools and plant materials, in a planned and concerted dialogue with the entire value chain.
The project will ensure that its innovative and novel solutions meet the real needs of the agricultural sector, by directly involving farmers (via extension services), researchers and the seed and plant protection industries in its research activities. As a result of this bottom-up approach, it will also link producers directly with consumers.
In its approach, VIRTIGATION will further develop advanced diagnostics (i.e. full viral genome sequencing), and web-based bioinformatics tools, as well as improved quarantine measures. This should enable to rapidly detect and help prevent the entry and spread of begomovirus and tobamovirus-associated diseases and variants in Europe and other regions of the world (Morocco, Israel and India). The project will also take advantage of its gathered data to identify factors driving the emergence of new viral diseases and virus outbreaks, including climate change.
Finally, novel methods to (cross-)protect tomato and cucurbits plants from viral diseases will be developed, including vaccines for the plants, biopesticides against virus vectors (i.e. whiteflies), as well as Integrated Pest Management (IPM) strategies taking advantage of the natural resistance of plants in various agro- and ecosystems.
VIRTIGATION’s strategic objective of developing rapid and long-lasting solutions to combat emerging viral diseases in tomatoes and cucurbits will be implemented through six specific objectives:
1. Knowledge sharing and engagement of stakeholders in research activities
2. Develop robust diagnostic tests, quarantine measures and identify ecological factors driving disease outbreaks
3. Understand plant-virus-vector interactions
4. Develop IPM solutions
5. Identify and pyramid natural resistance to viral diseases and vectors
6. Train the tomato and cucurbit value chains