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Fusarium spp.

Fusarium head blight of wheat and pink ear rot of maize are two plant diseases caused by fungi belonging to the Fusarium spp. genus, causing severe quantitative and qualitative yield losses. In addition, these plant pathogens produce mycotoxins that are harmful to human and animal health.

What are the symptoms of Fusarium spp.?

The first symptoms of Fusarium head blight (mainly due to Fusarium graminearum) are water-soaked small lesions, evolving into brown, dark purple to black necrotic lesions on the exterior surface of the spikelet (scab). Orange to salmon-pink mycelium could appear on the lesions. With time, some spikelets or the entire head become blighted. The infected grains appear shrivelled, lighter and discoloured, reddish or bleached out (tombstone kernels). Small bluish-black perithecia may appear on the infected tissues (glume). The environmental conditions that promote Fusarium head blight are moderately fresh temperatures (>16 to 20 °C), high humidity, and rain during and after flowering.

Fusarium pink ear rot (mainly due to Fusarium verticillioides) shows up in the form of ear and kernel rot. Infection usually starts from the ear tips, individual kernels or groups of kernels scattered over the ear. With time, the white mycelium becomes whitish-lavender or whitish-pink. The cob can be infected as well. Kernels may also show the starburst symptom, consisting of white streaks starting from the silk scar. Mild-hot temperatures and high humidities, as well as abiotic and biotic (mainly Ostrinia nubilalis or European Corn Borer) stress, strongly increase both pathogenic fungi development and mycotoxin production by Fusarium pink ear rot.

What are the economic consequences of Fusarium spp.?

In Europe maize is grown on 13.59 million ha and small-grain cereals on 47.1 million ha. Fusarium spp. cause major diseases in all cereals leading to severe yield losses and mycotoxins in food and animal feed. It is expected that climate change could result in increased mycotoxin contamination, especially in North Western Europe.

How can Fusarium spp. be controlled?

Current management strategies are based on Good Agricultural Practices:

  • Land preparation, crop rotation and crop debris management, weed control, insect control, balanced nitrogen supply
  • Use of resistant varieties (wheat) or environmentally adapted hybrids (maize)
  • Correct timing ofsowing and harvesting

Only for wheat 1-2 applications of fungicides (Ergosterol Biosynthesis Inhibitors and Strobilurin Analogues) are suggested.

Use of pesticides

At the moment good agricultural practices represent the most common control strategy in maize against both Fusarium infection and contamination by Fusarium toxins. No effective fungicides are officially allowed for use against ear rot in maize. Annual fluctuations in weather conditions may strongly affect the advantages of good agricultural practices. Under weather conditions that are favouring Fusarium infections, preventative management strategies alone may not be sufficient and have to be complemented by control measures.
The use of fungicides for the control of Fusarium head blight is a normal practice. The active ingredients used are known to induce resistance in pathogens and their efficacy strongly depends on prompt application. These fungicides are under revision due to the likelihood of these substances being involved in endocrine disruption.

BIOCOMES biological control agent

The capability of the Trichoderma harzianum DSMZ 25764 strain to act as an inducer of resistance will be investigated. And this strain will also ecologically and molecularly be characterized for application in cereal crops as seed dressing in different countries. Very few seed dressing products based on biological control agents are available in the EU at the moment.
The development of a biological control agent (BCA) for application as a seed treatment for the control of Fusarium head blight and pink ear rot will offer a sustainable and reliable tool for the huge cereal acreage in Europe, both for food and feed production.

View slideshare presentation about fusarium spp.

Photo: Maize cob infected by Fusarium. Picture: University of Padova

Massimo Benuzzi
Massimo Benuzzi
Fusarium in cereals
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Biological Control Agents

At the end of the project an effective commercial formulation of T. harzianum strain DSM25764 for seed treatment will be ready.

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Current stage of the Biological Control Agent

75%

Month 18: Commercial formulation of strain for seed application
Month 18: Characterization of strain regarding strain-specific detection, ecological competence and pesticide compatibility
Month 36: Knowledge on the minimum effective dose under laboratory and semi-field conditions in different soils, on resistance induction, and on the survival of Fusarium graminearum and F. verticillioides
Month 48: Application strategies and minimum effective dose under open-field conditions for T. harzianum strain DSM25764 in wheat and maize

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