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Fusarium is a large genus of filamentous fungi widely distributed in soil and in association with plants. Most species are harmless saprobes and are relatively abundant members of the soil microbial community. Some species produce mycotoxins in cereal crops that can affect human and animal health if they enter the food chain. The main toxins produced by these Fusarium species are fumonisins and trichothecenes.

Pathogen

Fusarium chlamydospores
Fusarium macroconidia
The genus includes a number of economically important plant pathogenic species.

Fusarium graminearum commonly infects barley if there is rain late in the season. It is of economic impact to the malting and brewing industries as well as feed barley. Fusarium contamination in barley can result in head blight and in extreme contaminations the barley can appear pink. The genome of this wheat and maize pathogen has been sequenced. Fusarium graminearum can also cause root rot and seedling blight. The total losses in the US of barley and wheat crops between 1991 and 1996 have been estimated at $3 billion.

In humans

Some species may cause a range of opportunistic infections in humans. In humans with normal immune systems, fusarial infections may occur in the nails (onychomycosis) and in the cornea (keratomycosis or mycotic keratitis). In humans whose immune systems are weakened in a particular way (neutropenia, i.e., very low count of the white blood cell type called neutrophils), aggressive fusarial infections penetrating the entire body and bloodstream (disseminated infections) may be caused by members of the Fusarium solani complex, Fusarium oxysporum, Fusarium verticillioides, Fusarium proliferatum and rarely other fusarial species.

Use as human food

Fusarium venenatum is produced industrially for use as a human food by Marlow Foods, Ltd., and is marketed under the name Quorn in Europe and North America.

Biological warfare

Mass casualties occurred in the Soviet Unionmarker in the 1930s and 1940s when Fusarium-contaminated wheat flour was baked into bread, causing alimentary toxic aleukia with a 60% mortality rate. Symptoms began with abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and prostration. Within days fever, chills, myalgias and bone marrow depression with granulocytopenia and secondary sepsis. Further symptoms included pharyngeal or laryngeal ulceration and diffuse bleeding into the skin (petechiae and ecchymoses), melena, bloody diarrhea, hematuria, hematemesis, epistaxis, vaginal bleeding, Pancytopenia and gastrointestinal ulceration. Fusarium sporotrichoides contamination was found in affected grain in 1932, spurring research for medical purposes and for use in biological warfare. The active ingredient was found to be trichothecene T-2 mycotoxin, and was produced in quantity and weaponized prior to the passage of the Biological Weapons Convention in 1972. The Soviets were accused of using the agent, dubbed "yellow rain", to cause 6,300 deaths in Laosmarker, Kampucheamarker, and Afghanistanmarker between 1975 and 1981. The supposed biological warfare agent was later shown to be bee feces.

Following an outbreak of Fusarium oxysporum that affected coca plantations in Perumarker, and other crops planted in the area, the United Statesmarker has proposed the use of the agent as a mycoherbicide in drug eradication. In 2000, a proposal was passed to use the agent as part of Plan Colombia. In response to concerns that use of the fungus could be perceived as biological warfare, the Clinton Administration "waived" this use of Fusarium. A subsequent law passed in 2006 has mandated the testing of mycoherbicide agents - either Fusarium oxysporum or Pleospora papaveracea - in field trials in U.S. territory. Use of Fusarium oxysporum for these tests has raised concerns because resistant coca from the previous outbreak has been widely cultivated, and the fungus has been implicated in the birth of 31 anencephalic children in the Rio Grandemarker region of Texasmarker in 1991 , the loss of palm trees in Los Angelesmarker, and eye infections from contact lens solutions. The alternative Pleospora papaveracea is less well-known; despite decades of study in the Sovietmarker biowarfare lab in Tashkentmarker, Uzbekistanmarker, the relevant mycotoxins reportedly have not yet been isolated, named, or studied.

References

  1. Brewing Microbiology, 3rd edition. Priest and Campbell, ISBN 0-306-47288-0


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