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a red and black sharpshooter insect sits on a plant

Pierce’s disease still plagues California wine country

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Sweet discovery for the wine industryScience News, June 29, 1974

Pierce’s disease remains a problem for California grape growers.… [Pathologists] have identified the cause of the disease. They were able to isolate a small, non-motile, rod-shaped bacterium which is probably a new species and therefore as yet unnamed.


Pierce’s disease still vexes California vineyards and is estimated to cost the state more than $100 million per year. But researchers now know more about the culprit: Xylella fastidiosa.

The bacterium spreads among grapevines via insects, specifically sharpshooter leafhoppers and spittlebugs. When the insects suck sap from an infected plant, they pick up the microbe, which harmlessly multiplies in their mouths. Leafhoppers and ­spittlebugs then transmit the pathogen to vines when they latch onto a healthy plant. The subsequent infection prevents water and nutrients from flowing into the plant, eventually killing it.

There’s still no treatment for Pierce’s disease. Perhaps one day it will be possible to genetically engineer domesticated grapevines to be resistant to the bacteria.

Aimee Cunningham

Aimee Cunningham is the biomedical writer. She has a master’s degree in science journalism from New York University.

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