Efficacy of pre-harvest Aspergillus flavus biocontrol treatment on reducing aflatoxin accumulation during drying
Maize is a major calorie source for people living in Sub-Sahara Africa. In this region, Aspergillus flavus causes ear rot diseases in maize, contributing to food insecurity due to aflatoxin contamination. The biological control principle of competitive exclusion has been applied in both the United States and Africa to effectively reduce aflatoxin levels in maize at harvest by introducing atoxigenic strains that out-compete toxigenic strains. The goal of this study was to determine if the efficacy of preharvest biocontrol treatments carry over into the drying period, which is often delayed in Sub-Sahara Africa by the complexities of postharvest drying practices and lack of modern drying machinery. Maize was collected from fields in Texas and North Carolina that were treated with commercial biocontrol, and control fields that were untreated. To simulate moisture conditions similar to those experienced by farmers during drying in Sub-Sahara Africa, we adjusted the grain to 20% moisture content and incubated it at 28 ℃ for 6 days. Although the initial number of infected kernels in most samples were high, less than 24% of kernels were infected with Aspergillus flavus and aflatoxin levels were low (<4ppb). Both toxigenic and atoxigenic strains increased and spread through the grain over the incubation period, and aflatoxin levels increased, even in samples from biocontrol-treated fields. Our molecular analysis suggests that applied biocontrol strains from treated fields migrate to untreated fields. The results also indicate that the population of toxigenic A. flavus in the harvested grain will grow and produce aflatoxin during the drying period when moisture is high. Therefore, any potential postharvest reduction in aflatoxin accumulation will depend on how effective the biocontrol strain was at displacing the toxigenic populations prior to harvest.