Studies by scientists at the Agricultural Research Service’s (ARS) Biological Control of Pests Research Unit in Mississippi have shown that certain alkaloid compounds in fire ant venom — namely, piperideines and piperidines — can hinder growth of Pythium ultimum, a top crop pathogen worldwide.
Xixuan Jin, ARS microbiologist investigated the potential application of fire ant venom in the management of soilborne plant pathogens with ARS entomologist Jian Chen and Shezeng Li of the Institute of Plant Protection in Baoding, China.
Research groups have studied the insecticidal and antibiotic properties of fire ant venom since the 1950s. The effects have been tested on pests such as fruit flies and boll weevils, and bacteria like Escherichia coli on the seed or seedlings of vegetable, horticultural, and cucurbit crops.
The ARS team is, however, the first group not only to identify piperideine alkaloids, but also to demonstrate the properties of both piperideines and piperidines against soilborne plant-pathogenic P. ultimum.
In their experiments, the researchers used extraction techniques to obtain purified amounts of piperdeine and piperidine from the venom glands of both red and black imported fire ants. Researchers say producing commercial amounts of the venom would require considerable scale-up, even though these biting, stinging pests are a plentiful “resource,” infesting over 320 million acres in the southern U.S. and Puerto Rico, where they’ve become a dominant species.
Despite the alkaloids’ promise in managing diseases caused by P. ultimum, “Further studies on disease-control mechanisms and phytotoxicity are needed,” says Xixuan.