The aster yellows phytoplasma (AYp) is transmitted by the aster leafhopper, Macrosteles quadrilineatus Forbes, in a persistent and propagative manner. To study AYp replication and examine the variability of AYp titer in individual aster leafhoppers, we developed a quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction assay to measure AYp concentration in insect DNA extracts. Absolute quantification of AYp DNA was achieved by comparing the amplification of unknown amounts of an AYp target gene sequence, elongation factor TU (tuf), from whole insect DNA extractions, to the amplification of a dilution series containing known quantities of the tuf gene sequence cloned into a plasmid. The capabilities and limitations of this method were assessed by conducting time course experiments that varied the incubation time of AYp in the aster leafhopper from 0 to 9 d after a 48 h acquisition access period on an AYp-infected plant. Average AYp titer was measured in 107 aster leafhoppers and, expressed as Log10 (copies/insect), ranged from 3.53 (±0.07) to 6.26 ( ±0.11) occurring at one and 7 d after the acquisition access period. AYp titers per insect and relative to an aster leafhopper chromosomal reference gene, (cp6) wingless (cp6), increased ≈100-fold in insects that acquired the AYp. High quantification cycle values obtained for aster leafhoppers not exposed to an AYp-infected plant were interpreted as background and used to define a limit of detection for the quantitative real-time polymerase chain reaction assay. This method will improve our ability to study biological factors governing AYp replication in the aster leafhopper and determine if AYp titer is associated with frequency of transmission.
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