Harmful fungi cause enormous agricultural losses. Conventional techniques for combating them involve the use of poisonous fungicides. Researchers at Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT), working with partners from Germany, France, and Switzerland on the DialogProTec project, have developed environmentally safe alternatives that trick the pathogens’ chemical communication with plants. Now that the research has been completed, the new technology is ready for use.
First, the leaves turn brown, then the entire grapevine dies. A fungal infection called esca is a threat to wine production in Europe and causes millions in damage to winemakers every year. “This disease has been known in Southern Europe since the Middle Ages, but it never played a major role,” says Dr. Alexandra Wolf from KIT’s Botanical Institute, which coordinates the DialogProTec project. “But because of climate change, the fungus is now encountering many plants weakened by climate stress.” Conventional plant protection usually involves the use of poisonous fungicides to fight fungal diseases like esca. In DialogProTec, the researchers have developed a completely new approach that works without any environmentally hazardous toxins. “In nature, organisms interact using chemical signals. We’ve been able to identify some of the signals between the host and the pathogen and to manipulate them,” says Wolf, who adds that this “biohack” is precise and effective and has a minimal ecological footprint.
To develop the new methods, the KIT-led project founded an interdisciplinary research network including specialists in botany, fungal genetics, microsystem technology, organic chemistry, and agricultural sciences. The network used about 20,000 fungus strains from the collection at the Institute of Biotechnology and Drug Research (IBFW) in Kaiserslautern and about 6,000 plant species from KIT.
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