Bais studying ways to battle ‘rice blast’

Staff Reporter

NEWARK, Del. (June 10, 2014) — A University of Delaware scientist may have helped discover a way to fight a fungus that kills more than 30 percent of the world’s rice crop each year.
Harsh Bais, associate professor of plant and soil sciences at the university’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources, and a research team of scientists from the university and the University of California at Davis identified a naturally occurring microbe that fights the devastating virus known as “rice blast.”
The microbe, Pseudomonas chlororaphis EA105, lives in the soil around rice plants and causes a system-wide defense response in the plants, according to the university.
“We truly are working to disarm a cereal killer and to do so using a natural, organic control,” said Bais in a statement from his lab at the Delaware Biotechnology Institute in Newark. “Rice blast is a relentless killer, a force to be reckoned with, especially as rice is a staple in the daily diet of more than half the world’s population. That’s over three billion people. … As global population continues to grow, biocontrol bacteria may be an important key for farmers to overcome crop losses due to plant disease and to produce more food from the same acre of land.”
The fungus, known as Magnaporthe oryzae, attacks rice plants through spores resembling pressure plugs that penetrate the plant’s tissue, the university said.
Once those spores penetrate the plant, the fugus eats the plant alive. Common symptoms of rice blast include diamond-shaped lesions on the plant’s leaves.
The fungus is also beginning to threaten wheat production worldwide.
Applying a natural soil microbe as an antifungal treatment offers farmers benefits they won’t get using chemical pesticides, Bais said.
“Rice blast quickly learns how to get around synthetics. Most manmade pesticides are effective only for about three years,” he said.
Bais said he anticipates the day when farmers treat plants with a “magic cocktail of microbes” naturally found in the soil to boost immunity and growth. He and his colleagues plan to conduct field trials using the microbes on plants grown in a farm at the university this summer.
He also plans to work with farmers in India.
Bais’ research, published in BMC Plant Biology, is supported by a $1.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Plant Genome Research Project.