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ARS Scientists and BASF Corporation Join Forces

By Sharon Durham
April 24, 2001

A type of bacteria that could protect corn plants from toxin-producing fungi will be the subject of a cooperative research study between the Agricultural Research Service and BASF Corp. of Princeton, N.J.

ARS scientist Charles Bacon and BASF researchers will seek to identify an inhibitory substance in the bacterial endophyte Bacillus subtilis. In previous studies, Bacon has found that treating corn plants with B. subtilis prevents toxin-producing fungi from infecting the plants.

As an endophyte, B. subtilis lives inside the host plant, in the spaces between cells. By occupying these spaces, the bacterium blocks the fungi from living there. This process of blocking out harmful organisms is called competitive exclusion.

This procedure could help corn growers protect their crops from the fungus Fusarium moniliforme, which produces a mycotoxin called fumonisin. This mycotoxin can affect both livestock and poultry that eat infected corn, and F. moniliforme-infected corn may be associated with human esophageal cancer. The fungus itself may be found in 90 to 100 percent of all kernels, although the toxin is present in far fewer kernels.

The ARS and BASF study will explore mechanisms of controlling this pathogen. Bacon plans not only to identify the inhibitory substance in B. subtilis that appears to control the fungus, but how this substance is produced within the plant. BASF will determine the commercial viability of B. subtilis for controlling the fungus.

B. subtilis is a common non-toxic bacterium in the environment. It’s used to make cheese and natto, a Japanese soy-based food. But molecular analysis of the endophytic strain under study by Bacon indicates that it is a subspecies commonly found in desert soils. That could explain its association with plants--and what makes it distinct from the usual strains of this species.

ARS is the chief scientific research agency in the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Scientific contact: Charles Bacon, ARS Richard B. Russell Research Center, Athens, Ga., phone (706) 546-3158, fax (706) 546-3116,