Felipe Dalla Lana United States of America

Integrating plant, animal and human health while tackling ear rot and toxins in maize

"My goal is to understand plant disease systems and develop efficient disease management strategies that promote benefits for farmers and consumers, without impacting the environment."

Felipe Dalla Lana is a PhD student in the department of plant pathology at the Ohio State University. He and his professors, Pierce A. Paul and Laurence V. Madden, are conducting research into the management of two devastating plant diseases: Gibberella ear rot of maize and Fusarium head blight in wheat, both caused by the fungus, Fusarium graminearum. 

Maize is the second most widely grown grain crop in the world. Production can be threatened by over 30 different diseases, including ear rots caused by several different fungi. But there is often another associated and hidden danger: fungal toxins that are harmful to animal and human health. For example, in addition to significantly reducing crop yields, Fusarium graminearum produces vomitoxin, which, if ingested in heavily contaminated food and feed, can cause gastrointestinal problems and suppression of the immune system, with fatal consequences in severe cases. Fungal toxins are considered to be among the most serious threats to food safety worldwide. 

Felipe and his professors know first-hand the challenges faced by farmers. The frequency of Gibberella ear rot outbreaks has increased over the past decade,” Felipe explains. “In 2018, high levels of vomitoxin contamination of grain caused unprecedented economic losses to the maize industry in the United States, and this problem is not isolated to North America. Worldwide, there are growing concerns about the handling of contaminated grain by farmers, and the consumption of toxins in grain, especially by livestock.” 

Felipe and the team are studying the influence of weather and other factors on the development of Gibberella ear rot and, importantly, toxin production.  They are also developing a web-based disease and toxin-forecasting system to help forewarn farmers of the potential for high toxin levels in their harvest, and to provide recommendations on treatment and management. 

Fungal toxins in grain are a prime example showing how plant, human and animal health are intertwined. However, by applying the knowledge gained through their research, Felipe and his team are helping farmers mitigate the harm these toxins cause.