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New Computer Program Predicts Mycotoxin Levels in Corn

By Jan Suszkiw
December 21, 2004

Predicting mycotoxin levels in midwestern corn is now possible with a new computer program developed by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists.

Mycotoxins are natural carcinogens produced by certain molds, particularly Aspergillus flavus and Fusarium moniliforme. Strict regulatory controls determine the sale and use of mycotoxin-containing corn, because of the carcinogens' potential danger to humans and livestock. Corn with mycotoxin levels above the allowable limit may be rejected; harvests with levels at or below the limit may face devalued markets. Annually, mycotoxin-associated losses cost the U.S. corn industry hundreds of millions of dollars.

Mycotoxins can be detected in corn through testing. But predicting the conditions that cause the molds to produce the carcinogens has been a matter of guesswork, according to Patrick Dowd, an entomologist at the ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, in Peoria, Ill.

Dowd's solution is Mycotoxin Predictor 1.1. Copyrighted by collaborators at Illinois Central College, the Windows-friendly software program uses equations to mathematically predict mycotoxin levels using temperature, soil type, numbers of insects and other factors that influence the molds' growth and spread.

By entering such data into the program, a farmer can predict the likelihood--and levels--of mycotoxin contamination more than a month before harvest. Mold growth is often tied to insect damage. So, if the program predicts that mycotoxin problems are likely to arise from heavy insect feeding, the farmer may opt to spray the crop before caterpillars can hide inside corn husks and cause damage that allows mold growth.

Dowd wrote the software program in 1998 after six years of collecting data on field conditions and corn ear contamination in connection with two mycotoxins, aflatoxin and fumonisin. He validated the program's predictions by comparing them with an independent lab's analysis of mycotoxin levels in more than two dozen corn hybrids used in field tests from 2000 to 2003 in collaboration with the Central Illinois Irrigated Growers Association.

ARS is seeking a software company that can market Mycotoxin Predictor 1.1 to farmers, millers, refiners and others.

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