Fungal Parasites and Pathogens

Plant Parasites and Pathogens

The production of sufficient high-quality crops is essential to human existence. Unfortunately, plant diseases have ruined many crops throughout human agricultural history, sometimes creating widespread famine. Many plant pathogens are fungi that cause tissue decay and the eventual death of the host (Figure). In addition to destroying plant tissue directly, some plant pathogens spoil crops by producing potent toxins that can further damage and kill the host plant. Fungi are also responsible for food spoilage and the rotting of stored crops. For example, the fungus Claviceps purpurea causes ergot, a disease of cereal crops (especially of rye). Although the fungus reduces the yield of cereals, the effects of the ergot's alkaloid toxins on humans and animals are of much greater significance. In animals, the disease is referred to as ergotism. The most common signs and symptoms are convulsions, hallucination, gangrene, and loss of milk in cattle. The active ingredient of ergot is lysergic acid, which is a precursor of the drug LSD. Smuts, rusts, and powdery or downy mildew are other examples of common fungal pathogens that affect crops.

Image displays various plants and fruits infected with fungal pathogens. (a) green mold on grapefruit, (b) powdery mildew covering zinnia flower and leaves, (c) red-colored rust on barley, (d) grey rot on grapes, which appears as a fibrous, almost cotton-like substance.
Fungal pathogens. Some fungal pathogens include (a) green mold on grapefruit, (b) powdery mildew on a zinnia, (c) stem rust on a sheaf of barley, and (d) grey rot on grapes. In wet conditions Botrytis cinerea, the fungus that causes grey rot, can destroy a grape crop. However, controlled infection of grapes by Botrytis results in noble rot, a condition that produces strong and much-prized dessert wines. (credit a: modification of work by Scott Bauer, USDA-ARS; credit b: modification of work by Stephen Ausmus, USDA-ARS; credit c: modification of work by David Marshall, USDA-ARS; credit d: modification of work by Joseph Smilanick, USDA-ARS)

Aflatoxins are toxic, carcinogenic compounds released by fungi of the genus Aspergillus. Periodically, harvests of nuts and grains are tainted by aflatoxins, leading to massive recall of produce. This sometimes ruins producers and causes food shortages in developing countries.

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