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Can fire ant venom stop plant pathogens?

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One of the painful scourges faced when I grew Christmas trees on the Blake family farm in Mississippi was the tenacious fire ant. The sharp pain from the fire ant venom injected into the ankle or hands generated yells through the vocal chords and many hours of misery.

Now, the same venom that brings growers and others to their knees may be a blessing in disguise for commercial agriculture.

Studies by USDA scientists in Stoneville, Miss. suggest that two alkaloid compounds in the ant venom - piperideines and piperdines – can in fact hinder the growth of the crop pathogen Pythium ultimum.

This pathogen decays plant seeds and seedlings of vegetable, horticultural, and cucurbit crops. Fungicide, delayed planting, and crop rotation are among the current methods to control P. ultimum.

USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) entomologist Jian Chen is co-investigating the potential application of fire ant venom to manage soilborne pathogens, including P. ultimum, in collaboration with ARS microbiologist Xixuan Jin, and Shezeng Li of the Institute of Plant Protection, Baoding, China.

Using complicated extraction techniques, the researchers gleaned purified amounts of piperideine and piperidine from the venom glands of red and black imported fire ants. The ants are invasive (and painful) pests across 320 million acres plus in the South and other areas.

First reported in the December 2012 issue of Pest Management Science, ARS says the findings signal significant reductions in the growth and germination of the pathogen's mycelium.

These findings could open the door to other solutions to pathogen-created issues in other farming areas.

Read more about this research in the August 2013 Agricultural Research magazine.

In the meantime, don’t don the party hats or toot the horns quite yet.

Wear boots and stay clear of fire ant beds.

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