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USDA grant will fund research for PA mushroom production

by Katie Bohn

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Mushrooms are a tasty addition to dishes ranging from stir fries to stews, but harmful pathogens, pests and microbes have been reducing crop yields for decades.

A new grant for more than $7 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture will fund an upcoming project led by Penn State researchers, who aim to develop new pest management tools for mushroom crops. They also plan to create new outreach opportunities to growers, farm owners, residents and policymakers.

David Beyer, professor of mushrooms in the College of Agricultural Sciences and project director on the grant, said that while mushrooms are a significant source of minerals and essential nutrients, an estimated 10% to 15% of mushroom crops are lost each year to pests and disease.

“These issues remain a significant problem for mushroom growers in North America, and yet management options are limited,” he said. “Growers have an urgent need for new technology and management strategies for pests and bacterial, viral and fungal diseases.”

Blair Siegfried, associate dean for research and graduate education, said the team’s success in receiving an award from this competitive program highlights the important work the college's researchers contribute to support the state’s mushroom industry.

“We are delighted that the early-stage investments from the college, made possible by the Giorgi Mushroom Company Fund for Mushroom Research, have been leveraged to facilitate this funding,” he said. “We look forward to seeing how this grant will further support mushroom growers in Pennsylvania and beyond.”

According to the research team, there are several current threats to mushroom crops.

Both the phorid fly and fungus gnat are widespread pests. Trichoderma green mold, dry bubble, hairy mold and cobweb mold are major fungal pathogens that also challenge mushroom farms. Additionally, bacterial blotch and La France Isometric Virus (LFIV) are diseases that are recurring problems on farms.

Under the new grant, the researchers will take several steps to address these threats. They will develop and integrate new tools and strategies with Cropsmarts, a suite of web and mobile apps previously developed by Steve Haynes, teaching professor of information sciences and technology at Penn State and principal investigator on the current project.

“In this project, we aim to further develop Cropsmarts by creating a high-definition information ecosystem in which sensors of various types are deployed in mushroom growing rooms to help automate the capture of data related to mushroom pest management parameters,” Beyer said. “While these technologies have been deployed to enable ‘smart agriculture’ for many kinds of crops, so far relatively little work has been done in the mushroom industry.”

The team will also design new integrated pest management tools for controlling fly populations, which threaten crops by feeding on mushrooms and spreading disease.

This will include using machine learning to develop a new computer-vision-based tool for monitoring phorid and sciarid flies, making fly detection more accurate and accessible to farmers. The researchers will also investigate and develop new methods for controlling fly populations, such as using nematodes and mites to reduce fly larvae on crops, and test the efficacy of different insecticides on adult flies.

The project team will also aim to develop better testing tools and strategies for detecting LFIV in mushroom crops and to better understand how the virus affects mushrooms at different severities of infection.

Beyer said that a common challenge for growers dealing with LFIV is that virus-infected mushrooms may or may not show symptoms, and reduced yields and delayed mushroom production may be mistaken for other problems.

“Because few labs provide LFIV virus testing, few growers send out samples to confirm the virus,” he said. “No methods are currently available to quantify the amount of virus in mushroom tissue, particularly when the virus may be present at moderate or low abundance.”

Beyer said the researchers plan to develop a sensitive protocol for detecting and quantifying the virus at lower abundances for incorporation into diagnostic services.

The researchers said they will also investigate strategies for making post-crop steaming — a critical but energy-demanding step in preventing disease and fly infestation in subsequent crops — more energy efficient, as well as strategies for combating bacterial blotch. the potential for flavonoids from sorghum to be used as biopesticides, and strategies for combating bacterial blotch — a disease that can damage mushrooms and reduce yields.

“Fellow team members include five pathologists, three computer scientists, two mushroom scientists, two entomologists, a plant geneticist, a natural products chemist, two economists and one extension educator, all of whom have expertise working with cultivated mushrooms,” Beyer said. “This is truly interdisciplinary work that impacts a variety of fields and could inform solutions to multiple challenges. That’s also why extension and outreach efforts are a major goal of the project.”

Other Penn State researchers participating in the project include Michael Wolfin, assistant research professor of entomology; John Pecchia, associate research professor and director of the Mushroom Spawn Lab; Carolee Bull, professor of bacterial systematics and plant pathology, plant pathology and environmental microbiology; Surinder Chopra, professor of maize genetics; Maria Gorgo-Gourovitch, Penn State Extension; Kevin Hockett, assistant professor of microbial ecology; Joshua Kellogg, assistant professor of veterinary and biomedical sciences; Shirin Ghatrehsamani, assistant professor of agricultural and biological engineering; Mihail Kantor, assistant research professor; and Fabricio Vieira, postdoctoral scholar.

The project will also include collaborators at the University of Delaware, the University of Florida, Lehigh University, and the California State University Monterey-Bay, Seaside.

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