1. ITV Report

Cambridge scientists help develop computer programme to crack spread of ash dieback

Scientists working to protect the UK's ash trees from a deadly fungus are building a computer programme capable of predicting the spread of the disease.

Ash dieback, caused by the highly infectious Chalara fraxinea fungus, has been found at 391 sites in the UK.

Researchers say they are working on a computer model that will help monitor and predict the course of the disease threatening the third most common broadleaf tree, after oak and birch.

_Video: Matt Castle, University of Cambridge. _

They also plan to unravel the DNA of the fungus to try to understand how it developed and identify genes that seek to resist attack.

The work follows a £2.4 million funding award from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Chief executive Professor Douglas Kell said: "Little is known about the fungus, why it is so aggressive, or its interactions with the trees that it attacks. This prevents effective control strategies.

"These grants will enable the UK's world-leading bioscience community to speed up the response to tackling the disease directly. It will also help us to understand and harness the ways in which some ash trees can defend themselves naturally."

The research will be carried out by tree health and forestry specialists at the Nornex consortium. Contributors include staff at the universities of Cambridge, Edinburgh, Exeter and Copenhagen, the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute and the Food and Environment Research Agency.

It complements a project funded by the Natural Environment Research Council, at Queen Mary University of London, to decipher the ash tree's genetic code.

The fungus has wiped out 90% of ash trees in some parts of Denmark and is becoming widespread in central Europe.

Its discovery last year in the UK, thought to have arrived on imported ash trees and blown as spores from the Continent, prompted fears of devastation similar to that wrought by Dutch elm disease in the 1970s.

About 2% of Danish trees appear to ward off the disease but little information on the genetic basis for this is known, researchers said.

Genetic data from these trees will be compared with susceptible trees to find variations in their genetic codes. By identifying these differences, it is hoped genetic makers can be developed to help breeders produce more resistant trees.