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Fungi that live within grasses are being harnessed by scientists to save the New Zealand economy billions of dollars.
Epichloë endophytes occur naturally in some grasses, such as those used to feed livestock on New Zealand farms. While some types of endophyte can be harmful to livestock, selected endophytes introduced to varieties of grass offer benefits such as deterring insect pests from feeding on the grasses, while minimising any negative health effects.
It is these opportunities that have attracted scientists like those at AgResearch, a world leader in this area of research. The focus over the last 35 years has been on selecting endophyte strains that can improve the productivity of pastures, while also improving livestock health.
“We have identified and commercialised endophyte strains of such benefit that they are now critical components of pastures in New Zealand,” says AgResearch Science Team Leader Dr Linda Johnson.
“The benefits are undoubtedly in the billions of dollars over time. These include increased farm productivity, reduced costs for animal health, and reduced pasture losses to pests and costs to control those pests. New endophyte strains alone contribute about $200 million every year to the New Zealand economy.”
The endophyte AR37 discovered by AgResearch scientists and released in 2006 for use in ryegrass proved a key success in reducing the impact of a range of pests, and consequently improving animal growth on farms.
Dr Johnson says there is scope for extending the use of endophytes beyond pasture grasses, to other endophyte species that can have benefits for a range of important crops, such as wheat.
“Microbial endophytes are gaining importance as options for the control of pests and diseases in many crops of economic significance,” Dr Johnson says.
“The opportunity for the team at AgResearch is to use the substantial knowledge and understanding gained from working with the Epichloë endophytes in grasses, and extend that to delivering new endophyte options in those other crops for the benefit of New Zealand.”