Nature is a mother (of invention)

Harnessing nature's power describes many of the most important medical advances. Vaccines, for example, arguably the most significant medical advances in history, work because they stimulate our natural immune systems — they simply jump-start our natural defenses. Some of the newest anti-cancer treatments take a similar approach — in effect, painting a bulls eye on cancer cells so that our immune systems can attack them.

When our immune systems fail us, we often harness nature in a different way to treat illness in a more curative fashion. For example, many pharmaceuticals are derived from chemicals found in plants. It is no coincidence that penicillin, derived from the Penicillium fungus, is an effective antibiotic for people. After all, its intended purpose (in nature) is to kill bacteria that would compete with the fungus. Humans, also susceptible to bacteria, simply take advantage of this for our own benefit.

We are gradually getting better at understanding complex ecological interactions, particularly those that we have to look a little closer at to see. Truly, from the perspective of a bacterium or a fungus, it must be “a jungle out there.” As we learn more, we're finding that most organisms, including bacteria and fungi, possess effective defenses … defenses that we may be able to exploit for our own uses.

One of the most fascinating examples of cooperation in nature — one that's been used in high school biology classes for decades — is that of leaf-cutter ants, which harvest foliage and stow it away in their nests. A fungus grows on the leaf matter collected by the ants, and the ants then consume the fungus as food. The ants, in effect, are farmers. It wasn't until recently that it was discovered that there was even more to this story.

One scientist wondered why the ants' fungal farms weren't prone to invasion by bacteria or other fungi. It turned out to be a pertinent question. The answer was that, in fact, invasion was a threat, especially from another type of fungus. But it also seemed that the ants were able to keep it under control. How were they doing this? On the surface of ants' bodies were small waxy deposits. Upon examination, the scientist discovered that these deposits contained active bacterial populations of — surprise! — Streptomyces bacteria, from the same group of bacteria that supplies approximately half the antibiotics used in medicine.

So the ants harvest and store leaves to feed the good fungus, which in turn feeds the ants, which in turn harbor bacteria, which in turn produce antibiotics that protect the good fungus from the bad fungus. Got it?

With remarkable relationships like this, it's no wonder that nature's such a rich source of novel products. This month's cover feature discusses a group of products that derive from a similar, albeit simpler, natural phenomenon: strobilurin fungicides. In the late 1980s, scientists discovered a fungus that produced a substance that was toxic to other fungi, for the presumed purpose of eliminating the competition.

It didn't take long for people to realize the potential of this substance for use as a fungicide. Today, strobilurins are one of the most significant groups of fungicides, having fulfilled their initial promise. Find out more in “Nature's Cleanup Crew,” beginning on page 14.

This issue focuses on disease control, and you'll find several other features that will be useful in your disease control efforts. Proper sprayer calibration is critical to successful disease control efforts, and this month's “How to” (page 64) provides step-by-step instructions for doing just that. You'll also find in this issue our annually revised Fungicide Update.

Finally, let's not forget that it's that time again. Tax time, that is. Check out “Tax Tips,” on page 55, for information that might just help you save some money.

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