Expert view

Could a fungus help farmers reduce pesticide use?

A group of Canadian researchers believe that it is possible that a genetically engineered fungus could help farmers cut their pesticide use. However, the scientists from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, add that the relationship between that fungus and the plants it protects must first be better understood.

Entomopathogenic fungi exist in soils all over the world. Some time ago, it was discovered that these fungi have a symbiotic relationship with plants; by growing on roots, the fungi help plants access more soil-based nitrogen in exchange for carbon.

The fungi’s spores also kill select harmful pests by consuming their bodies, then using them as a propagation vector. As horror film-esque as it sounds, that targeted reproduction process is one of the reasons entomopathogenic fungi are already applied as a crop protection product in some parts of the world.

Genetic tweaking

Instead of applying the fungus on an as-needed basis, though, researchers at Queen’s think a little genetic tweaking could help farmers keep useful fungi active in their soil year after year. If this naturally occurring fungus already exists as a growth promoter and a pest deterrent, that is, can it be altered for more targeted, prolonged use?

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What if it could withstand drought or overly wet conditions? Could these fungi be engineered to be yet-more selective in their insect-targeting reproduction, or made-to-suit for different soil types? The potential benefits to farmers, one could argue, are diverse indeed.

Reduced reliance on pesticides

Perhaps an obvious by-product of successful genetically engineered fungi would be a reduced reliance on insecticide. Given the right commercial circumstances, that could be good news for the farmers’ proverbial chequebook – not to mention an environmental boon for integrated pest management strategies.

But the question has to be asked: where would the public stand? The fungi might help promote plant growth and reduce the need for insecticide, but is that enough to wave GM fears?

GMO fears

Given the macabre way entomopathogenic fungi reproduce and the controversies that continue to plague insect-resistant plants – Bt-fortified crops, for example – I wouldn’t want to hedge my bets. Such concerns are a ways off, though, with the researchers still in the process of mapping the fungi’s gene expression profile.

Once they determine how the organisms’ traits express themselves, send signals, transport and handle stress – as well as how they respond to different growing conditions – more thought can be given to genetic design and on-farm use.

Still, the idea of protecting and promoting crops using sustainable fungi is intriguing. And with ever-increasing pressure to move away from a “better living through chemistry” mentality, a genetically engineered fungus might be a valuable thing to consider.