Researchers recruit bacteria to prevent fungal diseases

Plant fungal diseases can be devastating for horticulture and agriculture – in the worst cases, wiping out entire crops.

But scientists from New Zealand company Lincoln Agritech believe that altering the bacteria associated with disease-causing fungi will lead to new strategies to protect crops.

They have just won a $1 million contract from the Ministry of Business, Innovation & Employment (MBIE) to develop weakened variants of disease-causing fungi that can be used to prime plants and protect against fungal diseases.

“In previous research, we found that the bacteria associated with a fungus affect its ability to cause disease,” says Dr Jin-Hua Li, research scientist at Lincoln Agritech.

“Our novel approach will make fungi unable to cause disease by changing the bacteria that are associated with the fungi.”

Working with scientists from Crown research institute Scion, Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and the Foundation for Arable Research, Lincoln Agritech scientists will test the concept on brassica plants, a genus of plants that includes cabbage, cauliflower, and broccoli.

“We will test these attenuated variants on brassica plants, such as broccoli and cabbage,” says Dr Li. “We will coat seeds with the altered fungus, then try to infect the seedlings with the original fungus to see whether our new products have protected the plant from infection.”

Once the concept has been proven in brassica plants, it will be applied to cereal crops, and could potentially be used on several horticultural crops.

This new approach to protection will not only help New Zealand’s horticulture and agriculture industries, but it also provides an exciting new export opportunity.

“The global agrochemical industry is pivoting to develop new biological alternatives in response to urgent global demands for reduced chemical use,” says Dr Li. “For example, EU regulations are demanding a 50% reduction in chemical pesticide use by 2030.

“Our novel biotechnology will help exporters meet the growing market demand for non-chemical disease control. It will also enable the production of targeted next-generation bioprotectants that will propel New Zealand toward global leadership in sustainable agriculture.”

The research program will run for two years.

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