Widespread occurrence of "Candidatus Phytoplasma ulmi" in elm species in Germany
Background: ‘Candidatus Phytoplasma ulmi’ is the agent associated with elm yellows and has been categorised in the European Union as a quarantine pathogen. For central and northern European countries, information on the occurrence and distribution of the pathogen and its impact on elms is scarce, so a survey of native elm trees has been conducted in Germany. Results: About 6500 samples from Ulmus minor, Ulmus laevis and Ulmus glabra, were collected nationwide. Phytoplasma detection was performed by applying a universal 16Sr DNA-based quantitative PCR (qPCR) assay and a novel ‘Ca. P. ulmi’ specific qPCR assay targeting the 16S–23S spacer region. Both assays revealed that 28% of the samples were infected by ‘Ca. P. ulmi’, but infection rates of the elm species and regional incidences differed. The phytoplasma presence in the trees was not correlated to disease-specific symptoms. The survey identified a regional disparity of infection which was high in east, south and central Germany, whereas only a few infected sites were found in the western and northern parts of the country. Monitoring the seasonal titre of ‘Ca. P. ulmi’ in an infected tree by qPCR revealed a high colonisation in all parts of the tree throughout the year. Conclusions: ‘Ca. P. ulmi’ is widely present in elms in Germany. The rare occurrence of symptoms indicates either a high degree of tolerance in elm populations or a low virulence of pathogen strains enabling high infection rates in a long-living host.