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It is becoming harder and unsustainable to control the diseases and weeds that attack Europe's commercial vegetable crops by the use of chemicals alone. Biological control agents seem to be a promising alternative but we need to know more about how they act in the plant, the soil and the environment, and how to make them as effective as possible. A new threeyear EU Specific Targeted Research Project (STREP), Enhancement and Exploitation of Soil Biocontrol Agents for Bio-Constraint Management in Crops (2EBCA), is studying the most promising fungal biocontrol agents, with the aim of promoting their wider use.

The use of chemicals in this sector is declining for several reasons: some are being banned, some no longer work, and organic farmers are not allowed to use any of them. Other control strategies are either unavailable or impracticable. If plant pests and diseases could be controlled by biological methods, Europe would gain important tools for producing safer and healthier vegetables.


The study is focusing on cabbage, tomato, carrot and lettuce, all of which suffer from types of rot and wilt caused by phytopathogenic fungi, such as Sclerotinia, Fusarium or Pythium, as well as competition from invasive or perennial weeds. Fungi that occur naturally in the soil can protect plants from these infestations - the aim is to enhance such fungal activity so that it can be widely used without risk of adverse environmental effects.

The first stage is to study ways to make biocontrol agents more effective and reliable, either through genetic engineering or traditional selection procedures. The genetic study will allow for the isolation, characterisation and utilisation of the active genes and gene products associated with disease or weed control, plus the creation of a DNA library of those shown to work. This could enable the engineering of those agents that perform better.

Conventional selection takes the more aggressive strains and enhances these traits by 'old-fashioned' sexual methods. The best new organisms derived using both approaches will be tested for their ecological suitability.

The project will develop methods for mass production of the new active agents along with protocols for employing them.


Although public opinion largely favours organic farming, people could be worried about the release into the environment of large amounts of microorganisms, much more so if they may have been genetically modified. The project will carefully assess all the potential effects on non-target vegetation and other natural microbes, developing markers for the biocontrol organisms so that they can be tracked during use. The environmental impact of any new agents can then be estimated before they are put on the market.

The vegetables being protected will also be tested to ensure that they retain their quality and nutritional value following any application of biocontrol agents.


Biocontrol microbes have a poor image for acting slowly and being too specific. The project will attempt to overcome this perception by investigating combinations of micro-organisms and their metabolic products to enhance their efficacy and achieve a wider spread of disease and weed control. Finally, large-scale field trials on some key European vegetable crops at various locations will demonstrate these properties and will indicate the size of the potential market. Certain agents will be released to growers' associations to help in the trials and disseminate information about them. This will help to support their spread into the market place.

The body of scientific knowledge and methods developed in the project could readily be adapted to different crops and pests in other areas, thereby giving the results considerable long-term potential.

List of Partners

  • CNR - Institute of Sciences of Food Production (Italy)
  • Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique - Microbiologie Geochimie des Sols (France)
  • IMaGO (Italy)
  • Weizmann Institute of Science - Plant Sciences (Israel)
  • University of Naples - Department of Arboriculture, Botany and Plant Pathology (Italy)
  • Norwegian Crop Research Institute, Plant Protection Centre (Norway)
  • Horticulture Research International (UK)
  • Prophyta (Germany)
  • All Russian Research Institute of Plant Protection (Russia)
Full title:
Enhancement and exploitation of soil biocontrol agents for bio-constraint management in crops
Contract n:
Project co-ordinator:
Maurizio Vurro, CNR - Institute of Sciences of Food Production,
EC Scientific Officer:
Massimo Burioni,
EU contribution:
€ 2.3M
Specific Targeted Research Project

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Last update: 06 December 2007 | Top