Mycotoxins are natural carcinogens produced by certain moulds, particularly Aspergillus flavus and Fusarium moniliforme. Strict regulatory controls determine the sale and use of mycotoxin-containing corn, because of the carcinogens' potential danger to humans and livestock.
Corn with mycotoxin levels above the allowable limit may be rejected; harvests with levels at or below the limit may face devalued markets. Mycotoxin-associated losses cost the global corn industry hundreds of millions of euros every year.
But scientists at the US Agricultural Research Service (ARS) have found a new way of predicting levels of the carcinogen. Patrick Dowd, an entomologist at the ARS National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research, has developed the Mycotoxin Predictor 1.1.
Copyrighted by collaborators at Illinois Central College, the Windows-friendly software program uses equations to mathematically predict mycotoxin levels using temperature, soil type, numbers of insects and other factors that influence the moulds' growth and spread.
By entering such data into the programme, a farmer can predict the likelihood -and levels - of mycotoxin contamination more than a month before harvest. Mould growth is often tied to insect damage. So, if the program predicts that mycotoxin problems are likely to arise from heavy insect feeding, the farmer may opt to spray the crop before caterpillars can hide inside corn husks and cause damage that allows mould growth.
Dowd wrote the software programme in 1998 after six years of collecting data on field conditions and corn ear contamination in connection with two mycotoxins, aflatoxin and fumonisin. He validated the program's predictions by comparing them with an independent lab's analysis of mycotoxin levels in more than two dozen corn hybrids used in field tests from 2000 to 2003 in collaboration with the Central Illinois Irrigated Growers Association.
ARS is seeking a software company that can market Mycotoxin Predictor 1.1 to farmers, millers, refiners and others.
ARS is the US Department of Agriculture's chief scientific research agency.