Seed coating: fungi protect maize from disease

Did you know that seeds can wear coats, just like people? Different kinds of coats can be added to seeds to protect them for improved cultivation. How do seed-coatings work and what are the benefits for seeds wearing coats? There are several distinct strengths of seed coating. You will know a lot more about seed-coating, and a recent discovery that could be applied in maize seeds, after reading throughout this page.

Recently, Federico Rivas-Franco, with colleages at Lincoln University and researchers around the world, discovered the benefits of coating maize seed with a kind of entomopathogenic fungi (Metarhizium species). Entomopathogenic is a technical word meaning insect killing, so this is a fungus that infects and kills insects. By adding a Metarhizium coating to maize seed, Federico found that maize plants grow taller than the untreated plants, when those plants are in the presence of the plant pathogenic fungus, Fusarium graminearum. That was a useful surprise!

What’s more, the Metarhizium hyphae (the growing threads of the fungus) were observed growing on and in root tissues in all the Metarhizium treated maize with the coating. This showed that Metarhizium can live together with maize roots and had a consistent effect on defending maize plants from underground pests and plant pathogens (like Fusarium graminearum).

Fusarium ear rot on maize
Fusarium ear rot on maize.
Image CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by Thomas Lumpkin

Many of you may be asking, what is Fusarium graminearum? It is a causative agent of several serious plant diseases. Fusarium graminearum can cause a devastating disaster on maize and lead to huge yield losses.

Maize seeds, roots, stems and ears can all be easily infected by this fungal pathogen, which means maize plants are susceptible to Fusarium infections throughout the cultivation period. More terribly, not only maize, but also wheat, barley and rice can be infested by Fusarium. It is quite annoying, right? It can be expensive for farmers. What if people and stock eat the contaminated crops? The answer is they will get ill, and the symptoms including vomiting, stomach ache and so on. Fusarium infected maize can not be sold as food, so farmers need a solution to protect their crop from this nasty fungus.

Metarhizium species are a kind of fungus that is generally used to biocontrol insect pests. However, the biocontrol ability of Metarhizium not only works for insects but also against plant pathogens like Fusarium. That’s quite the superpower!

In 1870s, Metarhizium was first extracted and identified by a Russia scientist Élie Metchnikoff (Илья Ильич Мечников in Russian). He found that there were hypha growing from dead beetles. Initially, the hypha was white, then turned green, and then a darker green. After molecular techniques were introduced at the end of 20th century, new species of Metarhizium species have continued to be identified.

How does Metarhizium combine with seed coats? In fact, it is microsclerotia, which is a resistant structure grown by the fungus, that is added into seed coats. Over the past decade, it has been discovered that entomopathogenic fungi are able to produce high concentrations of microsclerotia when grown in liquid media.

Microsclerotia are desiccation tolerant and have excellent storage stability. More importantly, they are capable of producing high quantities of infective conidia (asexual spores) after rehydration. All these attributes make microsclerotia an excellent agent to be used in seed coating.

Besides preventing plant diseases and pests, different seed coatings can also make seeds grow healthier and improve cold resistance (drought & moisture resistance as well). That’s because commercial seed coatings are composite products made up of combinations of insecticides, fungicides, compound fertilizers, trace elements, plant growth regulators or more other chemical or physical components. What’s more, same size and shape of coated seeds make it much easier for mechanical sowing.

After using seed coatings, farmers don’t need to use as many insecticides and fungicides to protect the emerging young plants. This reduces the pollution in the environment and the insecticide (or fungicide) resistance of the plant.

This research demonstrated the excellent potential for adding Metarhizium to commercial seed coatings for maize. We have seen the good outcomes in the experimental field. Let’s wait and see the next step for figuring out how best to do this in commercial production.

This article was prepared by Master of Science postgraduate student Xiaohan Wang as part of the ECOL608 Research Methods in Ecology course.

Leave a Reply