What is Phytopathology?

Mary McMahon

Phytopathology or plant pathology is the study of disease in plants. Diseases caused by pathogens which attack plants are studied by phytopathologists, along with damage caused by environmental factors. Because humans rely heavily on plants for food, this branch of the biological sciences is very important, and specialists in the field can sometimes command very high fees for their services.

A phytopathologist studies plant diseases, like the potato blight that caused the Irish Potato Famine of 1845.
A phytopathologist studies plant diseases, like the potato blight that caused the Irish Potato Famine of 1845.

Learning to identify plant diseases is one aspect of phytopathology, as is learning the terminology associated with the description of plant diseases to ensure consistency. Most researchers are also interested in learning how to manage specific outbreaks of disease, and in preventing future outbreaks. Phytopathologists can work in labs, examining samples from diseased plants and growing test crops, and they can also work in the field for agricultural companies, government agencies, and nurseries.

In terms of pathogens, there are a number of things which can cause damage to plants, including fungi, bacteria, viruses, and nematodes. Just like human pathogens, plant pathogens can be handled in a variety of ways, with disease control methods such as quarantine, destruction, or spraying. Some plant diseases are extremely common, leading to active efforts to prevent outbreaks and to control them quickly when they do occur. Breakthroughs in phytopathology often focus on the development of new approaches to perennial problems.

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Environmental factors like rainfall, sun exposure, wind, and soil quality can also play a role in plant health. Phytophathologists who focus on environmental influences on plant health may be interested in topics like global warming, resource usage, and land use policy. By quickly identifying environmental threats to crops, they can work rapidly to save crops which may be threatened by environmental factors.

In addition to studying modern plant diseases and the process of plant disease, some phytopathologists are also interested in the history of plant disease. Research on famous historical events like the Potato Famine can provide insight into how those events occurred, and how a repeat might be prevented. Phytopathology can also provide clues into even older history, like outbreaks of ergot on rye crops which might have caused mass hysteria in Ancient Greece and Rome.

Many gardeners become amateur phytopathologists after years of experience in the garden. Gardeners can usually identify recurrent problems, and some have their own approaches to unhealthy plants and plant diseases. Gardeners often utilize preventative measures to reduce the risk of growing unhealthy plants, taking advantage of their experience along with data published in the field of phytopathology on common problems in the garden.

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