U of G Scientists Find 'Weapon' to Fight Fungal Poison

December 07, 2009 - News Release

University of Guelph scientists have found a potential weapon against a fungal poison that can decimate crops and sicken humans and livestock.

Their research may help plant scientists develop protection for a toxin that can wipe out corn and cereal crops in days, said Chris Hall, a professor in Guelph’s School of Environmental Sciences.

He worked on the project with recent PhD graduate Patrick Doyle, lead author of a paper published recently in the Journal of Biological Chemistry. Co-authors also included researchers with Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada and the National Research Council in Ottawa.

The toxin is produced by the Fusarium fungus and is among the most serious threats to cereal crops worldwide. A 1990s outbreak in barley and wheat cost North American farmers between $1.3 billion and $3 billion in losses.

Called deoxynivalenol (DON), the mycotoxin made by the fungus is regulated in harvested grain because of health risks to people and animals.

In tests using yeast, the Guelph researchers showed they could use toxin-specific antibody fragments to dramatically reduce the effects of the fungal poison. They hope to see their work replicated in plant studies.

Antibodies are part of the body’s immune system for attacking pathogens, said Hall, holder of the Canada Research Chair in Recombinant Antibody Technology. The researchers used genetic engineering to create yeast cells that made antibodies against DON toxin. Their test early this year showed lower effects of the toxin in those yeast cells.

Hall said current regulations prevent researchers from using genetically engineered antibodies in commercial crops. But those rules may eventually change.

"It's a good example of taking a technology for human pharmaceutical purposes and applying it to agriculture," Doyle said.

This research was supported by funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs.

For media questions, contact Communications and Public Affairs: Lori Bona Hunt, Ext. 53338, lhunt@uoguelph.ca, or Deirdre Healey, Ext. 56982, d.healey@exec.uoguelph.ca

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