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Up in the air — Drones aid in fight against mycotoxins

The appearance of mycotoxins in a field of crops isn’t usually an isolated instance. The toxins, which are produced by fungal growth on plants, can have a widespread presence in any given growing season. When one region suffers through a bad episode with a mycotoxin, nearby areas tend to struggle as well.

That’s why farmers and researchers have a vested interest in getting a bird’s-eye view of how mycotoxins spread — literally. Increasingly, aerial drones are being used to monitor how mycotoxins, and the fungi that cause them, spread from field to field and region to region.

David G. Schmale of Virginia Tech is one researcher who has been studying the way mycotoxins travel. Schmale and his team use drones equipped with a number of scientific tools to study the spread of fungi and other harmful crop pests, reports Chemical & Engineering News.

Some of these drones have Plasmon resonance sensors that can identify target pathogens and collect them on a specially designed surface. Through a series of “release-and-recapture experiments,” Schmale’s team releases spores of a fungus known to be local to the area. Before doing so, the researchers identify any piece of the fungus’s DNA that stands out, which will act as a tag in the wild, allowing researchers to track the fungus’s movement.

By paying attention to harvest times, the researchers avoid increasing the likelihood that crops become contaminated. It helps that all spores released are types that already exist in the tested region.

“We are typically not adding a significant fraction to the overall load in the air,” Schmale said.

Targeted fungi

One of the biggest targets of Schmale’s team is Fusarium graminearum. This fungus grows in cool, damp weather conditions, and is especially a problem in wheat, corn, barley and ensilages. When it shows up in crops, it causes a disease called head blight, or ear blight.

Not only does the fungus damage crops, it creates the mycotoxin deoxynivalenol (DON). When humans or animals consume food contaminated with DON, they potentially face severe health repercussions. Animals who eat contaminated feed typically lose weight, stop eating, and vomit a lot (hence the mycotoxin’s other name, vomitoxin). Small amounts of exposure over time can lead to gastritis and damage to the intestinal system.

There are a few ways farmers try to control mycotoxin contamination, including the use of rapid tests to detect their presence, preventing contaminated grains from reaching animals or people.

Stay tuned for the return of Neogen’s Monday Mycotoxin and Crop Reports, a weekly series that keeps viewers up to date on North American mycotoxin concerns throughout the growing and harvest seasons.

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