Ergot is a disease of cereals and grasses caused by fungi in the genus Claviceps
Of particular concern are Claviceps purpurea
in temperate regions, C. africana
in sorghum (worldwide), and C. fusiformis
in pearl millet (Africa, Asia). The fungi infect young, usually unfertilized ovaries, replacing the seeds by dark mycelial masses known as sclerotia. The percentage of sclerotia in marketable grain is strictly regulated in many countries. In winter rye, ergot has been known in Europe since the early Middle Ages. The alkaloids produced by the fungus severely affect the health of humans and warm-blooded animals. In sorghum and pearl millet, ergot became a problem when growers adopted hybrid technology, which increased host susceptibility. Plant traits reducing ergot infection include immediate pollination of receptive stigmas, closed flowering (cleistogamy), and physiological resistance. Genetic, nonpollen-mediated variation in ergot susceptibility could be demonstrated in all three affected cereals. Fungicides have limited efficacy and application is weather dependent. Sorting out the sclerotia from the harvest by photocells is expensive and time consuming. In conclusion, molecular-based hybrid rye breeding could improve pollen fertility by introgressing effective restorer genes thus bringing down the ergot infection level to that of conventional population cultivars. A further reduction might be feasible in the future by selecting more resistant germplasm.
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