FOOD SECURITY AND HEALTH: REVENGE OF THE NASTY FUNGI
Fungal disease in agriculture highlights the potential for a "global collapse" in the ability of chemicals to control pathogenic fungi that threaten human health as well as food security.
Fungi can evolve so swiftly to counter the chemical treatments designed to protect health and food, in much the same way as bacteria change in the face of increasingly powerful antibiotics, that urgent action is necessary to control this rapid emergence of resistant strains.
“To avoid a global collapse in our ability to control fungal infections and to avoid critical failures in medicine and food security, we must improve our stewardship of extant chemicals, promote new antifungal discovery and leverage emerging technologies for alternative solutions,” warns a research team in Science today.
Crop-destroying fungi regularly reduce annual yields worldwide by a fifth, with another 10% loss after the crop has been harvested, and fungal effects on human health are spiralling, says the team from Imperial College, Rothamsted Research and the universities of Lausanne and Exeter.
“Most people now have heard of bacterial ‘superbugs’, but resistance is a problem in all kinds of infectious diseases and agricultural pests,” says Nichola Hawkins, a molecular plant pathologist and evolutionary biologist at Rothamsted and co-author of the Science review.
Increasing colour intensity reflects a growing number of reports of resistance of fungi to antifungal treatments
“The causes of resistance have a lot in common across these different systems,” she says. “Ultimately, they all come down to evolution by natural selection. But there are some important differences too.
“With antibiotic resistance, we often see the sharing of resistance genes between species. For fungal pathogens, what we’re seeing is mostly parallel evolution, where resistance evolves repeatedly in multiple different species that are each under the same, strong selective pressure.”
Hawkins advocates the sharing of knowledge across agricultural and clinical fields in an effort to seek the common drivers of resistance, and for the fields to work together to come up with new solutions. But the most obvious solution, to keep coming up with more new compounds, is not the whole answer, she notes.
“Recent experience tells us that this is not sustainable unless we also become more aware of resistance management, and develop non-chemical control measures too,” says Hawkins. “By aiming for as broad a toolkit as possible, we reduce the pressure on any one component, and improve our chances of a longer-term solution.”
The work at Rothamsted forms part of the Smart Crop Protection (SCP) strategic programme (BBS/OS/CP/000001) funded through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.
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About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit https://www.rothamsted.ac.uk/; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)
The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
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The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.