Recap of VIRTIGATION annual meeting in Catania

VIRTIGATION annual meeting Catania

From 15-17 May 2024, VIRTIGATION partners gathered in Catania, Italy, for the third annual meeting. They analyzed progress made so far and planned research & innovation actions for the final year of the project. Read our recap of VIRTIGATION’s visit to one of the EU’s most important horticultural production areas.

Sicily - a key horticultural hub in the EU

The Italian region of Sicily, which is separated from mainland Italy by the strait of Messina, is the largest island in the Mediterranean sea. Sicily is a key horticultural hub in the EU, responsible for supplying a large share of the continent’s greenhouse-grown tomato and cucurbit crops. This Italian region is also a rising force in the production of ornamental horticulture. Sicily also benefits from its favourable climatic conditions and the fertile volcanic soil, as the region is home to the world-renowned Mount Etna stratovolcano. Many of the notable fruits, nuts, and vegetables produced on the island have earned Europe’s top honors for food production and quality. These products include almonds, blood oranges, capers, cherries, lemons, olive oil, pistachios, as well as tomatoes.

Field visit to experimental greenhouses and nursery

Considering this situation, the Sicilian city of Catania, the island’s key economic center, was the optimal location to host the third annual meeting of the project. The three-day meeting took place at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Environment of our Italian partner University of Catania (UNICT). VIRTIGATION partners kicked off the annual meeting with a half-day session in the historical Aula Magna of the “Siculorum Gymnasium” in the Rectorate building of the University of Catania. Following this session, the remainder of the day included a visit to natural and agricultural areas around Mount Etna, Sicily’s giant and majestic mountain towering right behind Catania.

On the second day, project partners first visited experimental greenhouses run by UNICT. There, our partner UNICT showcased its ongoing whitefly trials. In 2023, one of the experimental greenhouses run by UNICT had been destroyed by a wildfire, but UNICT managed to rebuild it just in time to implement its key whitefly trials. Following the visit to UNICT’s experimental greenhouses, partners then could take a tour around the Centro Seia nursery, located in the Sicilian province of Ragusa. Centro Seia is a major nursery in Sicily, which has operated since the 1990s and has since expanded to France, Bosnia and the USA. Centro Seia is a key player in supplying the horticultural value chain with tomato and cucurbit plants. It also runs a state-of-the-art ToBRFV diagnostics protocol to identify early on the prevalence of this devastating virus in its production areas, and take immediate steps towards its control and eradication.  

VIRTIGATION annual meeting Catania
Restored experimental greenhouse of UNICT following the 2023 wildfire
UNICT experiments conducted in the Sicilian province of Ragusa
VIRTIGATION annual meeting Centro Seia Catania
Dr Giovanna Causarano, Head of R&D of the Centro Seia nursery, guides VIRTIGATION partners through the state-of-the-art facilities of the nursery at its site in Ragusa
VIRTIGATION annual meeting Catania greenhouses
Greenhouses in Ragusa, a key horticultural production zone in Sicily

VIRTIGATION annual meeting

VIRTIGATION partners then gathered again at UNICT’s Department of Agriculture, Food and Environment to take stock of the project progress made so far, and plan the next research & innovation actions for the remaining year of the project. All partners presented promising results from their research & innovation efforts, with some already having been published in various peer-reviewed scientific publications. Moreover, project partners discussed in detail the remaining semi-field and field trials, which will notably focus on testing various potentially promising biopesticide formulations to control the whitefly vector of ToLCNDV, as well as promising ToBRFV-resistant tomato genotypes. By the end of 2024, VIRTIGATION partners expect to produce the next key results from these field trials.     

Second meeting with the VIRTIGATION Advisory Board

On 17 May, the third annual meeting of the project concluded with the second session of the VIRTIGATION External Expert Advisory Board (EEAB). Advisory Board members Valérie Grimault and Darren Martin assessed the project results produced so far and provided recommendations for project partners to follow in the final year of VIRTIGATION. 

Valérie Grimault, Assistant Director of the crucial plant health organisation EPPO and expert in ToBRFV, urged VIRTIGATION partners to test different genetic materials for ToBRFV resistance, and aim to provide ToBRFV-resistant varieties for the EPPO region.  Darren Martin, Associate Professor in Computational Biology at the Institute of Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine of the University of Cape Town, South Africa. Martin, expert in virus genome analysis and bioinformatics, recommended partners to make extra analyses on the variation present in isolates of ToBRFV, including the genetic determinants. He also suggested to investigate if the ToBRFV plant virus would become more pathogenic, and how it would cope with the introduction of more resistant varieties in the ecosystem. 

The third annual meeting of VIRTIGATION then concluded with a visit to the Monastery of Benedettini, a UNESCO heritage site, as well as a city walk through the “black” city of Catania itself. The final VIRTIGATION annual meeting, and final symposium of the project will take place in 2025 in Leuven, Belgium, and will be hosted by our project coordinator KU Leuven

VIRTIGATION partners at the Department of Agriculture, Food and Environment of UNICT
VIRTIGATION partners visiting the volcanic craters of Mount Etna
Intense and fruitful exchanges at the VIRTIGATION annual meeting in Catania
VIRTIGATION annual meeting Catania Etna
The view of Mount Etna from the city of Catania

© all pictures: RTDS