John Innes Centre scientist awarded British Empire Medal for her work on ash dieback disease

5th Jan 2015

A Norfolk scientist has won recognition in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List for her part in discovering the wild outbreak of a deadly tree disease – and her subsequent work to combat the national epidemic.

Dr Anne Edwards, from the John Innes Centre (JIC) in Norwich, has been awarded a British Empire Medal for services to the environment and the public understanding of science.

In September 2012, the researcher was the first to confirm ash dieback disease had reached the UK’s wild ash tree population after extracting DNA from samples she found while working as a conservation volunteer at her local woods at Ashwellthorpe.

She is now a key part of an international consortium of forestry experts and scientists working to understand the Chalara fraxinea fungus, which causes the infection, and to find resistant genes in ash trees which could hold the key to the future of the species in the UK.

Dr Edwards said: “It is a huge honour to receive this medal. I’d like to pay tribute to all the hard work by UK and international scientists and the Norfolk Wildlife Trust who are working ceaselessly to find a solution to this problem.

“I know it is an awful cliché to say I am accepting it on behalf of everyone else, but I am also accepting it on behalf of the trees. You get all the sporting and acting people honoured, but this raises the profile of the environment, and it is time the environment had a higher profile.”

Dr Edwards is also a parish councillor in Hethersett, and a keen environmental volunteer. She said her knowledge of the ash dieback disease had come from the research for the Hethersett Environmental Action Team’s audit of the village’s ecosystem in 2011.

“Our Wild About Hethersett survey was prophetic in a way. It still makes me sad to think about it. We did an ash survey because we had heard of Chalara on the continent. Because Ashwellthorpe takes its name from this tree, I said if this disease came over here it would be devastating.”

Dr Edwards estimates that 90pc of the ash trees at the initial outbreak site are now affected by the disease to some degree.

“At Ashwellthorpe now it is very, very serious,” she said. “Especially after this last autumn, there are very few trees that would have escaped a dose of the spores. Some trees have died very quickly, but they have not all succumbed suddenly. Some are holding on, and some don’t look like they are affected at all. So we have tagged those and we are keeping a close eye on them.”

Dr Edwards said the public could also help in the search for trees with resistant traits.

“The trees are so emotive, and everyone wants to do what they can,” she said. “The hunt for the first UK resistant tree is still going on - maybe the one that spontaneously resists the disease which is not one we have predicted. There may be different sets of genes responsible, and we could put them all together into one super-resistant variety.

“If you have ash trees in your garden and 95pc of them die, but you have got 5pc which are looking healthy, we want to know about them, because they could be contenders for sequencing.”

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