Natural use of biology to control disease in crops is the Holy Grail of agriculture, and a team of young researchers has now pinpointed a way of easing cereals’ risks from a deadly root pathogen. In the soils of the world’s cereal fields, a family tussle between related species of fungi is underway for control of the crops’ roots, with food security threatened if the wrong side wins. Beneficial fungi can help plants to protect themselves from cousins eager to overwhelm the roots, but it’s a closely fought battle.
‘Take-all’ is a devastating root disease of cereal crops worldwide caused by the fungal pathogen, Gaeumannomyces tritici. Related species, notably G. hyphopodioides, are capable of immunising plant roots against the pathogen. Farmers struggle to control the disease because few chemical seed treatments are available, and current biological strategies are hindered by the variety of soil types. But now a young team of scientists from Rothamsted Research, funded by BBSRC, has come up with some answers. Their complete findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Botany. The team collected samples of the beneficial fungus from the fields of Rothamsted Farm and developed a laboratory test to explore their ability to colonise and protect the roots of barley, rye, wheat and the rye/wheat hybrid, triticale. In field trials, the team identified commercial cereal varieties that performed better than others.
“The future of take-all control cannot rely upon a single solution to combat the disease,” says Sarah-Jane Osborne, whose PhD in crop pathology focused on this research. “The results of our study show that certain current winter wheat varieties can strongly support naturally occurring populations of take-all suppressing fungi.”
Simon Oxley, Senior Scientist at AHDB, said: “I can foresee a time when growers will be able to select varieties that combine positive characteristics to minimise the damaging effect of this disease, thus contributing to the sustainability of crop production.”
Rothamsted’s take-all research group, led by McMillan, is part of one of the institute’s five strategic programs, namely Designing Future Wheat, a multi-institute initiative that focuses specifically on improving overall crop value and resilience. It was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).