Cabbage butterfly caterpillar eating rapeseed. LEHTIKUVA


Scientists have achieved a breakthrough by implanting a fungus known for its insect-killing prowess into rapeseed plants, resulting in the production of specific defense compounds. This discovery holds the potential to revolutionize agriculture, ushering in an era where ecological impact is minimized, and food production is secured.

Led by researchers at the University of Turku, the study revealed that a naturally occurring soil fungus with insecticidal properties could be successfully introduced into rapeseed plants, leading to the synthesis of certain defense compounds within the plant's cells.

This breakthrough represents a stride towards a more sustainable future in agriculture. The research sheds light on the possibility of using fungi to influence plant productivity and their ability to fend off pests.

In their study, scientists employed a fungus called Beauveria bassiana, recognized for its capacity to infect and eliminate insects. This fungus is also used in the production of biological pesticides, sprayed onto the leaves of cultivated plants. While these biopesticides are in use across the globe, their susceptibility to UV radiation has been a limitation. Hence, researchers sought an alternative approach by embedding the fungus directly into rapeseed plants.

"Our aim was to test whether the potential of Beauveria bassiana could be harnessed for plant protection, even as it resides endophytically within plant cells. By doing so, we aimed to trigger a natural defense mechanism against pests in the plant," explains the study's lead author, Associate Professor Anne Muola from the University of Turku's Biodiversity Unit.

The researchers made a significant breakthrough by establishing a functional endophytic relationship between the rapeseed plant and the fungus. The growth of the fungus within the plant's cells accelerated its production of flavonoids, increased the quantity of compounds recognized for their antioxidant properties, and bolstered the overall health of the plants.

"Our findings suggest that the interaction between the fungus and the plant enhanced the production of certain compounds beneficial for plant defense. This mechanism operates differently from the plant's typical defense response against, say, fungal diseases," says the study's second author, Research Specialist Benjamin Fuchs, also from the University of Turku's Biodiversity Unit.

Leveraging Microbes in Agriculture Could Reduce Dependency on Chemical Pesticides

The research notably highlighted the flavonoids produced by rapeseed plants. These compounds impact UV protection, color formation in flowers, and resistance against herbivores. The partnership between the plant and the fungus also increased the quantity of antioxidant compounds. In future studies, the researchers intend to explore the extent of the fungus's influence on the plant's resistance against various environmental stressors and its potential impact on crop quality.

"Our study represents a step towards more sustainable agriculture. If we begin to harness beneficial microbes that engage in close relationships with crops, we embark on a new agricultural era. Such an approach would make us less reliant on chemical pesticides," Fuchs remarks.

According to the researchers, these types of symbiotic partnerships provide a glimpse into the future of agriculture. In this vision, society must ensure food production while minimizing ecological impact.

"As the role of microbes in plant health gains recognition and advanced biotechnological methods become available, we can develop new innovative strategies to optimize sustainable crop production and quality," concludes Fuchs.

The research is part of the European Horizon program's EcoStack project. The research article was published in the esteemed Journal of Pest Management Science.

Explore the Research Article here.