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Innovative fungicide with additive effect protects popular tubers
for young potatoes
Danger lurks as soon as the first sprouts emerge from the tuber: the fungus Rhizoctonia solani causes considerable harvest losses and also covers any potatoes that do reach maturity with dark patches. Researchers at Bayer CropScience have now developed a new active substance which provides seed potatoes with an effective protective coating, promotes plant growth and thus increases the market value.
Appearances are important – even when it comes to choosing potatoes. Wrinkled areas, black patches and different sizes may be irrelevant in terms of human health, but our standards for these popular tubers have risen considerably in recent years. “Food retailers are becoming more discerning. Consumers prefer evenly shaped potatoes whose skins are free from fungi and other diseases,” explains Albert Schirring, Segment Manager for Potatoes & Vegetables at Bayer CropScience. Martin Stothard can also confirm Schirring’s verdict. The Senior Field Services Manager of major British potato producer Branston rolls one oval tuber after another like a ball between his thumb and forefinger. He scrutinizes the new harvest for blemishes. Quality requirements for this popular crop are rising, and not just in the United Kingdom – potato farmers worldwide are expected to achieve ever higher standards. No matter whether they are small round tubers with a pale skin or large oblong potatoes suitable for processing into French fries and chips; the potato is the third most important crop in the world after wheat and rice. shapen or no tubers. The evidence can be seen under the electron microscope: the fungal hyphae position themselves mainly around the sprouting parts of the potato – what are known as the eyes. “From there, the fungus attacks the fresh sprouts directly, inhibiting their growth,” says Suty-Heinze. The tuber then invests all its energy into its remaining sprouts, with the result that the other potatoes are larger than wanted. But there’s more: Rhizoctonia also strikes for a second time during the potato season. The hyphae remain on the surface of the newly grown tubers and cover them with black crusts. “This is not only a cosmetic problem, but also harbors the risk of transmitting the disease to the next potato generation and to other fields,” explains Münks. He therefore recommends that farmers should allow a break of several years between potato crops. “So Rhizoctonia infestation means a reduced yield – and also fewer tubers which meet the requirements of the food industry in terms of size and skin quality,” he says. His colleagues in Research have therefore responded to the challenge. In 2002, Suty-Heinze and her team heard from research colleagues in Japan about a new active substance
Rising standards demand flexibility from farmers
Particularly when buying “raw materials” for finished products such as dumplings or puree – which even in the rice strongholds of Asia are becoming increasingly popular – processors want evenly shaped tubers. “The growing expectations require farmers to be completely flexible,” says Karl-Wilhelm Münks, project leader at Bayer CropScience in Monheim. “Seed potato growers really have to identify trends two years in advance and respond accordingly.” Even so, the most sophisticated planning can quickly come to naught if tiny fungal hyphae strike. “The fungal pest Rhizoctonia solani affects potatoes even in the early stage of growth, initially targeting the young plants,” explains Anne Suty-Heinze, a crop protection researcher at Bayer CropScience. Affected sprouts then have brown patches, wither and form mis-
Harvest time: only a few potatoes are sold straight away. Most of them are first stored for several months. During this time, they may become infected by fungi. Karl-Wilhelm Münks (photo, right) and Anne Suty-Heinze work with young potato plants in the greenhouse with the aim of developing a new product to strengthen the maturing potatoes and protect them against fungal infestation.
Photos: Sabine Bungert/Bayer AG (4), Bayer CropScience/Bayer AG, Scottish Agronomy
Bayer research _ 24
Potatoes under the microscope: while biology lab assistant Simone Leonard and Dr. Friedrich Kerz-Möhlendick (photo, left) study plant and fungal tissue under the microscope, Karl-Wilhelm Münks (photo, right) inspects the mature tubers in the greenhouse, as the fungus Rhizoctonia solani leaves visible symptoms – dark patches – on the skin.
that could have an effect on the fungal pest Rhizoctonia: penflufen, an active substance for seed treatment. “Potatoes that have been treated with it have a clear head start,” explains Suty-Heinze. Seed potatoes treated with penflufen – the process is known in technical terms as seed dressing – get the newly devel-
oped active substance evenly distributed all over the tubers, providing optimum protection for the young sprouts. Tests clearly show that penflufen is distributed locally beneath the ground in the tuber and on the sprouts. “This is different to other active substances which are quickly distributed systemi-
cally via the xylem – the pathways by which nutrients are carried through the plants – and therefore also reach the parts above the ground,” explains Suty-Heinze. As a result, only very tiny amounts of active substance are needed, as they remain precisely where they are needed to protect the young tubers.
Major potato producers around the globe
Potatoes are grown in more than one hundred countries. The map of the world shows the most important producers on the individual continents (in millions of tons). As potato production requires relatively small amounts of water (right), this crop could help us safeguard the world’s food supply. 5,000
31.1 Russian Federation 73.2 China 19.7 11.6 Ukraine Germany
Water consumption in liters for production of one kilogram of food
19.6 United States 2.3 Colombia 3.7 Peru 3.4 Brazil
1,800 4.0 Egypt 1.8 South Africa 34.4 India 5.3 Bangladesh 1,300 700 900
Source: FAOSTAT 2011, UNESCO-IHE for Water Education, Water Footprint Network
“Harvest early, store in a cool place”
Successful, all-over protection: Ute Peter and Ansgar Flammersfeld inspect a freshly dressed seed potato which has been evenly coated with the active ingredient. The preventive pesticide treatment is designed to protect young sprouts effectively against fungal infestation.
The fungicide acts specifically on fungal cell organelles called mitochondria, the power houses of fungal cells. “The active substance binds to an important enzyme complex in the respiratory chain of the fungi known as succinate dehydrogenase, inhibiting its function,” explains Suty-Heinze. Penflufen thus stops the fungi from “breathing” and hence converting sugar into chemical energy.
Additional effects on plant vitality statistically confirmed
During the course of their experiments, Suty-Heinze and her team have not only observed effects on the Rhizoctonia fungus, however. “We have seen that penflufen is also useful against the disease known as silver scurf, which is caused by Helminthosporium solani.” The spores of this fungus are transmitted from tuber to tuber, with symptoms appearing during storage: silver blemishes on the surface of the skin. The fungi digest the skin, destroying the protective cover of the tubers. “Water loss then leads to shriveled tubers which are difficult to sell,” explains Stothard. As he and his colleagues around the world also have to deal with other pests and diseases, the Bayer CropScience potato team has
developed other penflufen-based products for seed treatment with suitable active ingredient combinations. However, not only does the new active ingredient provide the tubers with a protective coating, it also gives them additional powers. Plants treated with it grow more quickly and also have larger, stronger sprouts. Suty-Heinze’s colleagues in the United States have also observed the effect in trials in crops such as soy and corn. All this is also backed up by statistics: “The additive effect is no coincidence,” explains Dr. Friedrich Kerz-Möhlendick, who is responsible for scientific product support at Bayer CropScience. He and his team are currently engaged in research to elucidate the effect of penflufen on plant cells. The work on penflufen goes on – helping to boost the vitality of potatoes and other crops.
Why does a fungus like Rhizoctonia pose such a threat to potato growers? Rhizoctonia solani is seed- and soil-borne. It is commonly found to persist in many soils – although inoculum is usually higher in lighter textured soils and where potatoes are grown in short rotation. It causes a range of symptoms on the potato plant including delayed emergence, reduced yields due to rot and quality losses when the black scurf develops on tubers. What other diseases can affect potato harvests in storage? Amongst others, silver scurf and black dot. Both fungi cause lesions that look very similar, especially in the early stages of disease development: gray to silvery blotches and dark brown-gray blemishes on the tuber surface. The challenge is that symptom expression usually lags several weeks behind infection. As the infection progresses, the lesions usually become more prominent. Black dot has become a major problem in pre-pack potatoes – they look unappealing to consumers. An early harvest will minimize tuber infection. Holding tubers in cold storage delays symptom expression as well. What factors does a farmer have to bear in mind when he decides to grow potatoes? A continued challenge for potato growers is the supply of contracted potatoes to packers and processors at prices and production costs that provide reasonable profits. To minimize risk you should really clearly define what kind of potatoes you want to grow – table, processing or seed potatoes. To get a better understanding of your potato-growing costs, you should consider changing your growing systems and take customer expectations into account.
More information on this subject
Bayer research _ 24
Eric Anderson is Senior Agronomist at Scottish Agronomy, an agricultural cooperative. He has first-hand experience of the everyday challenges facing potato growers.
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