Monday, 9 February 2015

How fungi could revolutionise farming

Modern agriculture is plagued as much with diseases as it is with overuse of chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Unfortunately, the guarantee of a healthy crop is tantamount to a farmer's healthy income, and so the practice is such that nitrogen and phosphorous fertilisers with insecticides and pesticides has become commonplace.

[caption id="attachment_280" align="aligncenter" width="660"]Barley and me - a film about a guy who drinks a beer and then cries when it's done. Barley ripening in an open field. TCD research could help prevent barley diseases without the need for pesticide. Photo credit: Colin, CC2.0.[/caption]

Chemical supplements like fertiliser and pesticide cost Irish farmers hundreds of millions of Euro each year. These chemicals, while beneficial to the crop, are oftentimes harmful for the environment - a fact that modern consumers are increasingly aware of - and may even be detrimental to human health in significant quantities.

In barley farming alone, €99 million is spent on chemicals for crops according to researcher Brian Murphy at Trinity College Dublin (TCD), lead author on this research. Their findings, just published in BioControl and Symbiosis, have yielded a significant breakthrough that could help barley farmers save a pretty penny on pesticides while benefiting the environment and the consumer.

How is this possible?

Some fungi, unlike the mushrooms in your garden, partner with plants to form a symbiotic relationship. These are called endophytes, and they live on and protect plants in exchange for food. Many plants have some fungal or bacterial partnership, but their relationships aren't well understood. The research carried out at TCD sheds light on how fungal relationships could be used to the advantage of barley farming - the fourth most important on the planet - which is grown worldwide.

The endophytes identified by the TCD team, which reside in the roots of the barley, help ward off diseases commonly associated with seeds. If applied to a practical scenario, these fungi can effectively replace the use of some pesticides potentially saving the farmer time and money.

In addition to keeping diseases at bay, the fungi also augmented the barley plant's ability to grow under harsh conditions. The plants with fungi were six times more likely to survive than those without under stressful conditions such as heat , poor nutrient soil, and drought. Murphy said in a press release, "These symbiotic relationships are therefore a real case of life and death for the plants, as well as for many of the farmers relying on these crops."

Future of fungi in farming

The next step after identifying these beneficial fungi is seeing how they perform outside of a laboratory setting. A system of distributing the fungi to crops is also being considered for development, as crop rotation and pesticide use makes natural association between crops and fungi difficult.

Professor of Botany, Dr Trevor Hodkinson, at TCD stated, "The major challenge for agriculture is to increase crop yields while moving towards more sustainable farming systems. These naturally occurring fungal root endophytes offer huge potential to reduce agriculture's reliance on environmentally damaging chemical inputs."

It's hard to say if the farming communities will adopt these measure if proven to be successful, as farmers - by and large - tend to be conservative and use the "tried and trusted" methods. Organic farmers in Ireland will, I'm sure, be quite interested in these developments, however. Either way, these findings are too beneficial to all involved to be ignored.

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