Fusarium Head Blight (FHB) is one of the most devastating fungal diseases for wheat crops, compromising harvest and the global supply of staple products such as bread and durum wheat that is commonly used in pasta.
“These crops are not only food sources for many, but they are the livelihood, income generator, and food staples in which many communities around the world depend on to survive, especially here in Saskatchewan,” said Powell.
To maintain nutritional quality and the safety of grain products, Powell is working with USask professor Dr. Vladimir Vujanovic (PhD) to find effective green options that can be used to kill FHB rather than applying synthetic fungicides.
“Our research has revealed that a fungus called Sphaerodes mycoparasitica Vujan. limits the growth of fusarium by directly destroying the machinery that it uses to infect, invade, and kill growing wheat cells,” said Powell, a Master of Science student in USask’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources.
This biocontrol agent can also be applied at any stage in the crop’s lifecycle, rather than just at the flowering stage like many fungicides currently on the market–making it an easier option for farmers to use during the busy growth season.
“This treatment involves green technology that seeks to limit the dependence on synthetic fungicide,” Powell said. “This management strategy is based on the use of biological control, which is the management or control of a pest by using a natural predator.”
Besides helping to kill FHB, the biocontrol fungus has been found to serve as a potential helper for wheat crops in their seedling stage. Applying the fungus to crops in early growth stages provides an element of protection from fungus toxins, enhances seed quality and ultimately increases crop yield.
“Most FHB research studies are usually focused on bread wheat, which is more commonly cultivated,” said Powell. “Our research highlights the potential of this method to treat not only the more FHB- resistant bread wheat but also the potential to provide extra resistance to the more FHB-susceptible durum wheat, commonly used in pasta, that has low-level resistance.”
At the time of writing, the study is the first of its kind to assess the potential of combining a biocontrol agent with bread and durum wheat as a treatment for FHB.
Powell’s novel contributions to research have won her first place in multiple three-minute thesis competitions, in which graduate students conducting research explain their work and its important findings in three minutes.
“There is currently no effective preventative method for this disease; however, this biocontrol agent we have identified is most effective as a preventative strategy (to date),” said Powell.
This research was funded by the Agriculture Development Fund, a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Discovery grant, and the USask Food and Bioproduct Sciences Department’s Devolved Scholarship.
Powell will be presenting her project “Conquering a Cereal Killer” at the 2022 National 3MT Showcase on Nov. 2.
This article first ran as part of the 2022 Young Innovators series, an initiative of the USask Research Profile and Impact office in partnership with the Saskatoon StarPhoenix.