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Cunniffe Group: How can landscape structure be used to control crop disease?


Supervisor: Nik Cunniffe (Plant Sciences)


Attempts to control crop disease – e.g. spraying fungicide or planting resistant varieties – are made by individual farmers. However, successful disease management depends on spread at regional and national scales. Landscape-scale considerations are therefore important – but often overlooked – in understanding disease control. How far and how fast a pathogen spreads through a landscape, as well as whether it persists and for how long, depends upon the locations of fields containing susceptible host, as well as how this compares to the typical dispersal scale of pathogens. The details of the interaction changes in both time and space as crops are moved around the landscape. Exploratory work has shown how the invasibility of a landscape with untreated fields in any arrangement – effectively a landscape scale basic reproduction number – can be found via a relatively simple calculation based on the next generation matrix. This allows us to determine where and when control can be applied most profitably. This project involves ranking strategies for which fields should be treated across the landscape. These predictions would be tested in a spatially-explicit simulation model, which would combine two existing models (Elderfield et al., 2018; Cunniffe et al., 2016) to create the first model tracking spread of the important wheat disease septoria leaf blotch through a population of fields over multiple seasons.


The student would learn i) mapping a complex biological system to a parsimonious mathematical model; ii) modern methods for simulating epidemiological models; iii) high performance computing, via use of the a HPC cluster; iv) experience of applying mathematics to a biological system.
The project would best suit a student with from a background in mathematics, engineering, physics or ecology, ideally with some knowledge of computer programming. However, students with a wet-lab background have enjoyed and been successful in my laboratory in the past.


  • Cunniffe, N.J., Cobb, R.C., Meentemeyer, R.K., Rizzo, D.R. and Gilligan, C.A. (2016) Modeling when, where and how to manage a forest epidemic, motivated by sudden oak death in California. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 113:5640-5645.
  • Elderfield, J.A.D., Lopez-Ruiz, F.J., van den Bosch, F. and Cunniffe, N.J. (2018) Using epidemiological principles to explain fungicide resistance management tactics: why do mixtures outperform alternations? Phytopathology. 108:803-817.

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