Fluid fragmentation shapes rain-induced foliar disease transmission

Plant diseases represent a growing threat to the global food supply. The factors contributing to pathogen transmission from plant to plant remain poorly understood. Statistical correlations between rainfalls and plant disease outbreaks were reported; however, the detailed mechanisms linking the two were relegated to a black box. In this combined experimental and theoretical study, we focus on the impact dynamics of raindrops on infected leaves, one drop at a time. We find that the deposition range of most of the pathogen-bearing droplets is constrained by a hydrodynamical condition and we quantify the effect of leaf size and compliance on such constraint. Moreover, we identify and characterize two dominant fluid fragmentation scenarios as responsible for the dispersal of most pathogen-bearing droplets emitted from infected leaves: (i) the crescent-moon ejection is driven by the direct interaction between the impacting raindrop and the contaminated sessile drop and (ii) the inertial detachment is driven by the motion imparted to the leaf by the raindrop, leading to catapult-like droplet ejections. We find that at first, decreasing leaf size or increasing compliance reduces the range of pathogen-bearing droplets and the subsequent epidemic onset efficiency. However, this conclusion only applies for the crescent moon ejection. Above a certain compliance threshold a more effective mechanism of contaminated fluid ejection, the inertial detachment, emerges. This compliance threshold is determined by the ratio between the leaf velocity and the characteristic velocity of fluid fragmentation. The inertial detachment mechanism enhances the range of deposition of the larger contaminated droplets and suggests a change in epidemic onset pattern and a more efficient potential of infection of neighbouring plants. Dimensionless parameters and scaling laws are provided to rationalize our observations. Our results link for the first time the mechanical properties of foliage with the onset dynamics of foliar epidemics through the lens of fluid fragmentation. We discuss how the reported findings can inform the design of mitigation strategies acting at the early stage of a foliar disease outbreak.

In this study, our results show how the effect of leaf compliance and its careful quantification can account for changes of contamination range by a factor of up to four. For the same plant spacing density in a monoculture field, a change in the size or compliance of the foliage could then quadruple the epidemic propagation speed. Moreover, our results suggest that alternating the position of plants of different species, but with carefully selected complimentary leaf compliance parameters could halt epidemic onset.

PAPER: Gilet and Bourouiba (2015) Journal of the Royal Society Interface


MEDIA: MIT NEWS   and MIT Spotlight;  Nautilus science magazine; Science Magazine,, Scientific American and Altmetric