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Using worms to protect cash crops

Using worms to protect cash crops

A compound from roundworms can protect corn, soybeans and wheat from some bacteria and fungi

By Diego Flammini
Staff Writer

U.S. researchers have discovered that tiny roundworms contain a crop protection product.

Daniel Klessig, a plant pathologist, and Frank Schroeder, a chemist from the Boyce Thompson Institute in Ithaca, N.Y., found that an ascaroside, a sugar molecule that soil roundworms excrete as a form of communication can be used in a crop protection format.

“We discovered that a group of plant-parasitic nematodes produced one particular ascaroside, which we call Ascr#18 for short,” Klessig told “When we treated plants with the ascaroside, it induced the plants’ immune response to protect against different types of microbes.”

The scientists performed lab trials on corn, soybeans, rice, wheat and some vegetable crops by treating the plants with Ascr#18 and infecting them with a virus, bacteria, fungus or an oocmycete (water mold).

The ascaroside is an effective crop protection tool against crop infections including southern corn leaf blight and soybean mosaic virus, the results showed.

“We found anything from modest and partial protection to almost complete protection against a broad range of pathogens,” Klessig said.

The researchers have started a company called Ascribe Bioscience, which won a US$225,000 grant from the National Science Foundation in January.

The next step is to use the compound to develop a commercial seed treatment.

“We need to show that we can coat the seeds and enhance the production of the compound in economically viable levels,” Klessig said. “Even though the nematodes produce the compound, it would be very slow to wait for them to produce enough, so we synthesize it.”

Bringing this product to market could take up to five years, Klessig said.

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