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The condition of stored grain is determined (Lacey, 1988) by a complex interaction between the grain, the macro- and micro-environment and a variety of organisms (including microorganisms, insects, mites, rodents and birds) which may attack it.
Grain provides an abundant source of nutrients, and the natural consequence of the type of stable ecosystem described above will normally be spoilage (biodeterioration) of the grain, caused by the organisms.
The extent of contamination by moulds is largely determined by the temperature of the grain and the availability of water and oxygen. Moulds can grow over a wide range of temperatures, from below freezing to temperatures in excess of 50°C. In general, for a given substrate, the rate of mould growth will decrease with decreasing temperature and water availability. Moulds utilise intergranular water vapour, the concentration of which is determined by the state of the equilibrium between free water within the grain (the grain moisture content) and water in the vapour phase immediately surrounding the granular particle. The intergranular water concentration is described either in terms of the equilibrium relative humidity (ERM, %) or water activity (aw). The latter describes the ratio of the vapour pressure of water in the grain to that of pure water at the same temperature and pressure, while the ERH is equivalent to the water activity expressed as a percentage. For a given moisture content, different grains afford a variety of water activities and, consequently, support differing rates and type of mould growth. Typical water activities which are necessary for mould growth range from 0.70 to 0.90.
The interaction between grain temperature and moisture content also affects the extent of mould colonisation. The passage of water from the grain into the vapour phase is encouraged by an increase in temperature. Consequently, for a given moisture content, the water activity, and the propensity for mould growth, will increase with temperature. Maize, for example, can be relatively safely stored for one year at a moisture level of 15 per cent and a temperature of 15°C. However, the same maize stored at 30°C will be substantially damaged by moulds within three months.
Insects and mites (arthropods) can, of course, make a significant contribution towards the biodeterioration of grain, through the physical damage and nutrient losses caused by their activity. They are also important, however, because of their complex interaction with moulds and, consequently, their influence on mould colonisation.
In general, grain is not infested by insects below a temperature of 17°C whereas mite infestations can occur between 3 and 30°C and above 12 per cent moisture content. The metabolic activity of insects and mites causes an increase in both the moisture content and temperature of the infested grain. Arthropods also act as carriers of mould spores and their faecal material can be utilised as a food source by moulds. Furthermore, moulds can provide food for insects and mites but, in some cases, may may also act as pathogens.
Another important factor that can affect mould growth is the proportion of broken kernels in a consignment of grain. Broken kernels, caused by general handling and/or insect damage, are predisposed to mould invasion of the exposed endosperm. It has been estimated, for example, that increasing the proportion of broken grains by five per cent will reduce the storage-life of that consignment by approximately one order of magnitude; that is from, say, 150 to 15 days.
Mould growth is also regulated by the proportions of oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide in the intergranular atmosphere. Many moulds will grow at very low oxygen concentrations; a halving of linear growth, for example, will only be achieved if the oxygen content is reduced to less than 0.14 per cent. Interactions between the gases and the prevailing water activity also influence mould growth.
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