Natural protection for sugar industry

By staff reporter

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Sugar beet, Us

US scientists think they may have found a natural alternative to
pesticides used by sugar beet growers to fend off their biggest
enemy - the sugar beet root maggot.

Stefan Jaronski, an insect pathologist who works at the ARS Northern Plains Agricultural Research Laboratory in Sidney, has discovered that a strain of the biocontrol fungus Metarhizium anisopliae is not only effective at killing the maggot, but is also a vigorous colonizer that can adapt quickly to its new environment.

This could be an important breakthrough. Sugar producers in the US have experienced price volatility this year, caused by a smaller sugarbeet crop, delays in the start of the harvest in some areas and the impact of gulf coast hurricanes.

The tight domestic sugar market recently prompted the industry to yet again call for extra imports in order to avoid shortages on the market.

Jaronski's research builds on initial biocontrol efforts by ARS scientists at Fargo, N.D., during the 1990s.

Even though the fungus is a newcomer to sugar beet soils, it is quite capable of holding its own among the hundreds of other microbes already established there.

The maggot is certainly worthy of a unique control strategy. This subterranean pest gnaws on young sugar beet roots, inflicting deep wounds that leave the plants vulnerable to disease.

It is these destructive feeding habits that make the maggot the most important insect pest on the 1.4 million acres of sugar beets grown in the western United States.

At present, the only tools available to growers battling it are chemical sprays, such as terbufos, phorate and chlorpyrifos. Without them, farmers in some beet-growing regions - such as the Red River Valley of North Dakota - would lose up to 40 percent of their beet crop.

Jaronski, who has been studying biocontrol microbes for more than 25 years, puts a lot of stock in Metarhizium. He considers them the fatal 'athlete's foot' of insects, since the fungus first penetrates a vulnerable insect's cuticle, or 'skin,' using just a few spores.

After that, it grows steadily inside the insect until finally overwhelming the host's entire body. Jaronski's next step is to develop an optimal delivery system for the fungus.

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