Screening potential insect vectors in a museum biorepository reveals undiscovered diversity of plant pathogens in natural areas

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Phytoplasmas (Mollicutes, Acholeplasmataceae), vector-borne obligate bacterial plant parasites, infect nearly 1,000 plant species and unknown numbers of insects, mainly leafhoppers (Hemiptera, Deltocephalinae), which play a key role in transmission and epidemiology. Although the plant–phytoplasma–insect association has been evolving for >300 million years, nearly all known phytoplasmas have been discovered as a result of the damage inflicted by phytoplasma diseases on crops. Few efforts have been made to study phytoplasmas occurring in noneconomically important plants in natural habitats. In this study, a subsample of leafhopper specimens preserved in a large museum biorepository was analyzed to unveil potential new associations. PCR screening for phytoplasmas performed on 227 phloem-feeding leafhoppers collected worldwide from natural habitats revealed the presence of 6 different previously unknown phytoplasma strains. This indicates that museum collections of herbivorous insects represent a rich and largely untapped resource for discovery of new plant pathogens, that natural areas worldwide harbor a diverse but largely undiscovered diversity of phytoplasmas and potential insect vectors, and that independent epidemiological cycles occur in such habitats, posing a potential threat of disease spillover into agricultural systems. Larger-scale future investigations will contribute to a better understanding of phytoplasma genetic diversity, insect host range, and insect-borne phytoplasma transmission and provide an early warning for the emergence of new phytoplasma diseases across global agroecosystems.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6493-6503
Number of pages11
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number11
StatePublished - Jun 2021


  • coevolution
  • emerging disease
  • leafhoppers
  • phytoplasma
  • vector-borne pathogens

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Ecology
  • Nature and Landscape Conservation


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