Connect with us


Bacterial Plant Diseases


BBSRC, on behalf also of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Scottish Government, announces a call for research to address threats to UK plant health and biosecurity from bacterial diseases. Proposals are invited for multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary studies of bacterial plant pathogens and their interactions with host plants, invertebrate vectors and the wider environment.

This call is the second phase of a wider programme on bacterial plant diseases supported by UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF). It will complement the work of the recently established BRIGIT consortium focused on Xylella fastidiosa by funding studies of a variety of diseases.


There is growing concern about potential and existing threats to UK plant (including tree) health and biosecurity from the wider spread and more common occurrence of both emerging and indigenous bacterial diseases. Contributory factors include environmental change and greater movement of potentially contaminated plants or plant materials in trade. These pathogens (and their invertebrate vectors) threaten crop production, forestry, commercial and amenity horticulture, as well as woodlands and broader biodiversity within the wider environment. They have the potential to cause widespread and severe economic, environmental and social impacts on landscapes and ecosystems, both rural and urban.

Bacterial phytopathogens are diverse and cause many types of diseases. Their transmission may be airborne, soil-borne or via invertebrate vectors. When introduced to new areas their spread is unpredictable, but often highly invasive. They are difficult to control with chemicals and, unlike many other plant pathogens, frequently have a large number of potential hosts.

Concern is reinforced by a relative dearth of research on bacterial phytopathogens, compounded by the availability of limited scientific capability and capacity for responding to the challenges they pose. The pathogens are often difficult to study: infection may be latent and symptomless, while some pathogens are “unculturable” outside their plant hosts.

Defra’s Plant Health Risk Register contains information about many bacterial pathogens, and more pathogens are being added as they become a risk. This call does not focus exclusively on those bacterial diseases included in the register, but applicants may find it a useful source of information.


The purpose of this call for proposals is to support multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary research to understand and inform the management of threats to plant health in the UK from bacterial diseases with potentially severe impacts on cultivated plants or the natural environment. It aims to address the needs of policymakers and practitioners by exploiting scientific opportunities to address gaps in knowledge of the biology and epidemiology of these diseases in order to optimise responses for countering them.

The call also aims to increase capability and capacity for research on bacterial diseases by bringing together expertise in plant pathology with state-of-the-art genomic and other technologies, and research in other disciplines. Where appropriate, this research should draw on relevant approaches from other fields, particularly in a broader environmental context, to understand the interactions between pathogens, their hosts and vectors, and wider ecosystems.

The portfolio of funded projects will be actively managed to promote knowledge exchange – between projects and with stakeholders – in order to exploit opportunities for synergy and ensure relevance to user needs.


This call is the second phase of a wider programme on bacterial plant diseases supported by the SPF, with additional contributions from Defra and the Scottish Government. It covers all types of bacterial pathogens (including phytoplasmas) that affect or threaten cultivated or other (terrestrial or aquatic) plants (including trees) of commercial, environmental, social or cultural significance and value in the UK.

To understand the biology of bacterial pathogens and their complex interactions with host plants, invertebrate vectors and the wider environment, proposals will need to draw on expertise from a variety of research disciplines. These may include bacteriology, ecology, entomology, epidemiology, genomics, modelling, plant pathology, social science, and any other relevant areas of research. Innovative interdisciplinary approaches that integrate different types of expertise would be particularly welcomed.

As well as being scientifically excellent, the research to be funded must be strategically relevant to the needs of potential users: government, statutory agencies, business, industry and non-governmental organisations. Stakeholders are expected to be engaged in the design and the delivery of projects to ensure their relevance to policy and practice.

In addition, proposals must demonstrate how they would increase UK capacity and capability for research on bacterial plant diseases.

Proposals are invited for projects to address challenges under one or more of the following themes, but these are not intended to be prescriptive or exclusive:

Effects of environmental change

Changes in the environment, and its management, are likely to result in changes to the way that bacterial pathogens spread and affect their hosts. Changes in temperature, rainfall patterns, CO2 concentrations, insect vector behaviour, land use and farming behaviour may all affect the way that the host is exposed to the pathogen, and indeed whether a bacterial disease would become established after reaching the UK for the first time. Applications to study the effects of changing environments on bacterial diseases will help stakeholders to understand and prepare for bacterial diseases now and in the future.

Transfer between hosts

One of the greatest concerns about some bacterial diseases is their tendency to affect a particularly wide range of host plants. Understanding not only the host range of a pathogen, but how it is able to affect new hosts, may give us knowledge which can be used to prevent infection of further hosts. Understanding the role of vectors involved in transmission of the disease and infection of plants will also be key to developing ways to reduce the impacts of these diseases.

Factors affecting pathogenicity

In order for a bacterial disease to take hold in a host plant, the bacterium has to encounter the host in a form where infection can take place. Applications are welcomed to understand the life cycle of the pathogen, and what causes it to be pathogenic, as well as understanding how that pathogenicity occurs. This may have a role to play in informing stakeholders about the risks of infection, including from imported plant material.

Effects of soils/soil microbiome

Soil can play a variety of roles in the transmission and establishment of bacterial diseases of plants. Pathogenic bacteria can live in soil and infect host plants which grow there, and unlike pathogens affecting the upper parts of plants, soil-borne bacteria are difficult to treat. In addition diseases can be spread by organisms living in the soil, such as nematodes and slugs. Soil conditions, including the soil microbiome, can also have an effect but little research has been done in this area, and applications to study the role of soil in bacterial diseases of plants are welcomed.

Understanding host resistance and susceptibility

The mechanisms by which plant hosts resist attack from bacterial pathogens have been studied, but it is not always clear why one host species will be susceptible to a bacterial disease, while another species will be largely resistant. Understanding host resistance falls within the scope of this call, but applications focused primarily on breeding resistant varieties of crops will be rejected.

The research to be funded must be within BBSRC’s and/or NERC’s remit, and must include a substantial element of investigative biological and/or environmental science. But to ensure their relevance to stakeholders, and potential for impact, proposals must take account of the economic and social contexts of the plant health challenges they aim to address. Provided that they are closely integrated with other aspects of the proposed work, projects may also include appropriate elements of economic analysis or social science.

The first phase of the SPF bacterial plant diseases programme is a £5 million body of integrated multidisciplinary work on Xylella fastidiosa by the BRIGIT consortium of institutions led by the John Innes Centre. Whilst additional research on X. fastidiosa is not excluded from the present call, the proposed work must be distinctive from and complementary to BRIGIT and other existing studies, including the XF-ACTORS and POnTE projects supported by the European’s Union’s Horizon 2020 programme. Proposals must demonstrate the added value they would provide through synergy with ongoing activities.

Proposals for research into the roles of bacteria in diseases of oak trees are expected to align with the priorities of, and to engage with, the Action Oak partnership. Defra has offered to provide a letter of support for proposals which address the aims of Action Oak, please contact Sarah Jeffery at with a description of your proposal for more information. 

Research on the following topics is excluded from this call:

  • research on post-harvest bacterial contamination/decay of crops
  • research with the specific aim of enabling the commercial breeding of plants resistant to particular bacterial pathogens
  • research to understand interactions between plants and human bacterial pathogens and their roles in the transmission of illness to people.

Project scale and duration

Up to £13 million is available, subject to the quality of proposals received, with the aim of supporting an appropriately broad and balanced portfolio of up to 20 projects. Applications must not exceed £2.5 million (at 100% of their full economic cost). The funders aim to fund a portfolio of projects of mixed sizes and areas of focus. Large-scale multidisciplinary applications are welcomed, but smaller, more targeted projects are not excluded.

Funds can be requested for up to three years, and projects are expected to start by 1 May 2020.

All projects will be funded at 80% of their full economic cost.

Town Meeting

A Town Meeting was held on 21 June to provide potential applicants and stakeholders with an opportunity to find out more about the background to the call and understand what the funders hope to support through it. Presentations were given by Jon Knight, Nicola Spence, Saskia Hogenhout and Debbie Harding, and these are available in the ‘Downloads’ section. 


The call is open to eligible individuals in organisations that are normally eligible to apply for research grants from UKRI’s research councils. Standard BBSRC and NERC eligibility criteria apply, please see downloads and NERC: Research grant eligibility.

For this call only: Public Sector Research Establishments (PSREs) with 10 or more researchers with PhDs (or equivalent) are eligible to apply. If PSREs wishing to apply have not previously applied for UKRI funding and are not currently designated IRO status they will be required to complete an eligibility form ( see: UK Research and Innovation: Application for eligability to apply to UK Research and Innovation for research funding) to ensure they have the required research capacity, systems and controls in place to manage the research and grant funding. PSRE applicants should contact at the earliest opportunity to discuss their interests in applying.

Applications that include principal or co-investigators who are not eligible to apply for funding, and/or ineligible organisations will be rejected.

Overseas research institutions may be collaborative partners in projects but are not eligible to receive direct funding under the initiative. Research grant proposals will not be accepted from overseas institutions, or from UK applicants if proposals contain requests for direct funding for overseas co-applicants (but see section on subcontracting below).

Private sector organisations, charities and NGOs which do not have UKRI-approved IRO status may participate as collaborative partners, but such organisations are not eligible to apply for or receive direct funding from this initiative (but see section on subcontracting below).

In all instances of collaborative activity with organisations other than the classes of eligible institutions listed above, both applicants and collaborators/project partners must be aware that any costs incurred, direct or otherwise, by either collaborators or collaborators’ institutions (project partners) in connection with collaborations, cannot be met through this initiative.

Further guidance on the inclusion of collaborators and project partners is available in the BBSRC grants guide (see downloads section).

Sub-contracting aspects of the proposed work to institutions not eligible to apply directly for funding, due to, for example, the lack of appropriate expertise in eligible institutions, is acceptable. However, applicants would need to demonstrate that the participation of any subcontractor would provide access to essential capabilities that are not readily available in an eligible UK research organisation. Detailed information about sub-contracting is in the BBSRC Grants Guide.


Pre-announcement of the call4 March 2019
Launch of the call20 May 2019
Town Meeting21 June 2019
Application deadline25 July 2019
Assessment meetingDecember 2019 (tbc)
Research grants awardedFebruary 2020 (tbc)

There are constraints on the duration of this programme of funding and all grants will need to start on or before 1 May 2020.

Application and assessment process

Applications for research grants must be submitted through the research councils’ Joint Electronic Submission (Je-S) system and their assessment will be managed by BBSRC. Potential applicants should note that eligible individuals and institutions must be registered on the Je-S system to be able to apply. Any eligible institution or individual considering submission of a proposal, but not currently registered to use the system, should consider early registration and contact the Je-S Helpdesk ( ; 01793 444164).

Applicants should log into Je-S and select:

  • Council: BBSRC
  • Doc type: Standard Proposal
  • Scheme: Standard
  • Call/Type/Mode: Bacterial Plant Diseases Programme Phase 2

For this call, an additional document ‘Stakeholder Engagement Plan’ will be required. Please upload this to your application as attachment type ‘Other Attachment’ in Je-S. All other documents are required as per standard applications, however, for this call, the page limit for the Case for Support and Track Record should be a maximum of twelve sides of A4 (comprising two pages of track record and ten pages of the Case for Support).

Applications must be submitted before 16:00 BST on the day of the application deadline. No extensions to deadlines will be accepted. We recommend you submit well in advance of the application deadline.

The assessment criteria for proposals will be as follows:

  • Scientific excellence
  • Relevance to the call scope and purpose
  • Economic and social impact
  • Strategy and policy relevance
  • Value for money
  • Potential for building capability and capacity
  • Stakeholder engagement
  • Robustness and appropriateness of the plan for managing the project, in particular for the management of interdisciplinary consortia.

The funders will make the final decision on the projects to be funded based on the recommendations of the assessment panel. The funders will also take into consideration the overall coverage and balance of the programme of work being funded.

Pathways to Impact

Applicants will be required to complete a ‘Pathways to Impact’ statement as part of their application; this is a standard requirement of Research Council grant applications that is considered as part of the peer review process. The funding partners are keen that researchers funded through this programme should plan a programme of stakeholder engagement and knowledge exchange that will be implemented through the lifetime of their project. Applicants should consider carefully how the knowledge and experience gained from the project would be made available to relevant policy-makers and other stakeholders. Any other types of impact which may arise from the research should also be included. Please see UK Research and Innovation: Pathways to Impact.

Applicants should note that costs associated with implementing project-specific impact activities may be included in grant applications. Costs must be fully justified. The funders are particularly keen to see impact activities which will extend beyond the lifetime of the research grant.

Stakeholder engagement

In addition to the Pathways to Impact document, applicants will be required to submit a plan of stakeholder engagement. The funders are keen to see active involvement of relevant stakeholder groups in projects, from the design of projects, through the delivery of the research, and with the stakeholders ultimately using the outputs of the research. The stakeholder engagement plan should indicate which stakeholders are going to/likely to be involved, how they will be involved with the project and how their ongoing needs will be reflected in the delivery of the project.

The stakeholder engagement plan will be a separate attachment from the Pathways to Impact document and will be up to two pages in length.

Jon Knight from AHDB has offered to act as a broker to foster collaborations between applicants and relevant industrial stakeholders; please contact for further information. 

Funding and reporting requirements

Funding awarded under the initiative will be administered by BBSRC.  It will be subject to UKRI’s standard terms and conditions for research grants (see downloads), together with specific additional or alternative requirements agreed jointly by BBSRC and its funding partners (e.g. relating to intellectual property, data management and sharing, reporting requirements, public engagement or interactions with the funding partnership).

Projects supported through this initiative will be of up to three years’ duration.

Projects will be funded at 80% of eligible Full Economic Costs (FEC) in accordance with the Research Councils’ usual practice.

The funders have adopted UKRI’s policy on open access to research findings (see: UK Research and Innovation: Open Access Policy), and grants will be funded under those terms. Publication costs are no longer an eligible cost on research council grants.

The standard reporting requirements of research grants awarded under UKRI grant terms and conditions will apply.

Applications will be made available to all of the funders; information about funded grants will be made available on the funders’ websites.


Debbie Harding

Continue Reading