Purdue University Graduate School
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Thousand Cankers Disease of Eastern Black Walnut: Ecological Interactions in the Holobiont of a Bark Beetle-Fungal Disease

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posted on 2021-07-27, 15:35 authored by Geoffrey M WilliamsGeoffrey M Williams

Eastern black walnut (Juglans nigra L.) ranks among the most highly valued timber species in the central hardwood forest and across the world. This valuable tree fills a critical role in native ecosystems as a mast bearing pioneer on mesic sites. Along with other Juglans spp. (Juglandaceae), J. nigra is threatened by thousand cankers disease (TCD), an insect-vectored disease first described in 2009. TCD is caused by the bark beetle Pityophthorus juglandis Blackman (Corthylini) and the phytopathogenic fungus Geosmithia morbida Kol. Free. Ut. & Tiss. (Bionectriaceae). Together, the P. juglandis-G. morbida complex has expanded from its historical range in southwest North America throughout the western United States (U.S.) and Europe. This range expansion has led to widespread mortality among naïve hosts J. nigra and J. regia planted outside their native distributions.

The severity of TCD was previously observed to be highest in urban and plantation environments and outside of the host native range. Therefore, the objective of this work was to provide information on biotic and abiotic environmental factors that influence the severity and impact of TCD across the native and non-native range of J. nigra and across different climatic and management regimes. This knowledge would enable a better assessment of the risk posed by TCD and a basis for developing management activities that impart resilience to natural systems. Through a series of greenhouse-, laboratory- and field-based experiments, environmental factors that affect the pathogenicity and/or survival of G. morbida in J. nigra were identified, with a focus on the microbiome, climate, and opportunistic pathogens. A number of potentially important interactions among host, vector, pathogen and the rest of the holobiont of TCD were characterized. The holobiont is defined as the whole multitrophic community of organisms—including J. nigra, microinvertebrates, fungi and bacteria—that interact with one another and with the host.

Our findings indicate that interactions among host, vector, pathogen, secondary pathogens, novel microbial communities, and novel abiotic environments modulate the severity of TCD in native, non-native, and managed and unmanaged contexts. Prevailing climatic conditions favor reproduction and spread of G. morbida in the western United States due to the effect of wood moisture content on fungal competition. The microbiome of soils, roots, and stems of trees and seedlings grown outside the host native range harbor distinct, lower-diversity communities of bacteria and fungi compared to the native range, including different communities of beneficial or pathogenic functional groups of fungi. The pathogen G. morbida was also associated with a distinct community of microbes in stems compared to G. morbida-negative trees. The soil microbiome from intensively-managed plantations facilitated positive feedback between G. morbida and a disease-promomting endophytic Fusarium solani species complex sp. in roots of J. nigra seedlings. Finally, the nematode species Bursaphelenchus juglandis associated with P. juglandis synergizes with G. morbida to cause foliar symptoms in seedlings in a shadehouse; conversely, experiments and observations indicated that the nematode species Panagrolaimus sp. and cf. Ektaphelenchus sp. could suppress WTB populations and/or TCD outbreaks.

In conclusion, the composition, function, and interactions within the P. juglandis and J. nigra holobiont play important roles in the TCD pathosystem. Managers and conservationists should be aware that novel associations outside the host native range, or in monocultures, intensive nursery production, and urban and low-humidity environments may favor progression of the disease through the effects of associated phytobiomes, nematodes, and climatic conditions on disease etiology. Trees in higher diversity, less intensively managed growing environments within their native range may be more resilient to disease. Moreover, expatriated, susceptible host species (i.e., J. nigra) growing in environments that are favorable to novel pests or pest complexes (i.e., the western U.S.) may provide connectivity between emergent forest health threats (i.e., TCD) and native host populations (i.e., J. nigra in its native range).


Fred M. Van Eck Memorial Foundation

FNR Investments in Excellence Seed Grant

IPM and Sustainable Practices for Nurseries, Managed Landscapes and Urban Forests

National Institute of Food and Agriculture

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Degree Type

  • Doctor of Philosophy


  • Forestry and Natural Resources

Campus location

  • West Lafayette

Advisor/Supervisor/Committee Chair

Matthew D. Ginzel

Additional Committee Member 2

Denita Hadziabdic

Additional Committee Member 3

Michael Jenkins

Additional Committee Member 4

John Couture