Canadian Grain Commission
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Fusarium head blight in western Canada

By Randy Clear and Susan Patrick, Mycology, Grain Research Laboratory, Canadian Grain Commission

Revised January 25, 2010 (History)

Fusarium head blight (FHB) is a fungal disease that may infect a number of crops in Canada – wheat, barley, oats, rye, corn, canary seed and forage grasses. However, the crops most affected are wheat, barley and corn.

Fusarium head blight is not a new disease. It was identified over 100 years ago, in 1884, in England. It was first called wheat scab, and later, tombstone disease, because of the chalky, lifeless appearance of the infected kernels.

Fusarium head blight has occurred in eastern Canada and the United States for many years. Losses from FHB in eastern Canada date to at least the early 1940's. Fusarium graminearum was first identified in Manitoba in 1923, but no serious outbreaks were reported until 1984. Since then, surveys in western Canada conducted by the Canadian Grain Commission’s Grain Research Laboratory have found F. graminearum in an ever-expanding area, now reaching into northern British Columbia.

F. graminearum is only one of many species of Fusarium, but it is considered the most important one in Canada because of the impact it has on yield and grain quality, its ability to produce several different toxins, and its abundance in eastern Canada and the eastern prairies.

In eastern Canada, it appears to be well established in all the cereal growing areas. In western Canada, F. graminearum is found most frequently in the black soil zone. This zone is also the area of highest rainfall on the prairies. Infection is associated with rainfall during the flowering stage. The infection is spread by wind, but the pathogen is also spread by planting infected seed.

Seedling blight can occur when planting infected seeds

Photograph showing that seedling blight can occur when planting infected seeds

This picture shows wheat seed on filter paper with the reddish colony of Fusarium growing on the seed surface and discolouring the roots and shoot.

FHB results in the production of visibly damaged seeds called FDK, as well as infected seeds which don't display visible symptoms of infection. These non-symptomatic seeds usually outnumber the FDK by a considerable margin. Planting infected seeds can result in a second disease called seedling blight.

Appearance of kernels with fusarium damage

Photograph showing the appearance of kernels with fusarium damage

FDK have also been called scabby, or tombstone. These names describe the appearance of wheat kernels affected by FHB. Such kernels are shriveled and chalky white.

Effects of FHB are greater the earlier it strikes

Photograph showing that the effects of fusarium head blight are greater the earlier it strikes

The earlier in the life cycle of a kernel that FHB strikes, the greater its effect. In this picture, the kernels were infected at progressively later stages of development. The three on the left are chalky white and covered with diminishing amount of the thread-like growth of mycelia of the fungus. The one furthest on the left has not gone through the combine, that is why there is so much more mycelium evident. The fourth seed is more vitreous, but has a trace of mycelium at the germ. The last two seeds on the right look normal, but they too are infected.

Symptoms of Fusarium head blight on various grains

Wheat

Wheat seeds - chalky white and slightly shriveled

This photograph shows 4 wheat kernels, each a chalky white colour and slightly shriveled. A couple kernels also display a slight pink in the crease due to the growth of Fusarium.

Rye

Rye seeds - chalky white and slightly shriveled

The seven rye seeds shown are chalky white and slightly shriveled. One of them has a bright orange fungal structure called a sporodochia covering about one-fifth of the seed surface.

Oats

Oat seeds

Two oat seeds are shown. One with the purplish-black, urn-shaped surface encrustation formed by F. graminearum and one with the bright orange sporodochia encrusting part of the seed surface formed by a number of Fusarium species.

Barley

One barley seed with the purplish-black, urn shaped surface encrustation formed by F. graminearum

One barley seed with the purplish-black, urn-shaped surface encrustation formed by F. graminearum.

Four species in North America can cause FHB

From left to right: F. graminearum, F. culmorum, F. avenaceum, F. crookwellense

F. graminearum is slightly curved and canoe-like.F. culmorum is slightly curved and sausage-like.F. avenaceum is slightly curved and needle-like.F. crookwellense is slightly curved and canoe-like.

Four species in North America can cause FHB.

F. graminearum is slightly curved and canoe-like.F. culmorum is slightly curved and sausage-like.F. avenaceum is slightly curved and needle-like.

Three species in North America are routinely found to produce it.

F. graminearum is slightly curved and canoe-like.F. culmorum is slightly curved and sausage-like.

Two of these produce DON (vomitoxin).

F. graminearum = Gibberella zeae

These pictures show two stages in the life cycle of F. graminearum. The imperfect stage is called F. graminearum and the perfect stage is called Gibberella zeae. Both stages can occur together.

Sporodochia

This photograph shows the orange encrustation of spores called sporodochia on the wheat head.

The orange encrustation of spores called sporodochia on the wheat head.

Conidiospores

This image shows a canoe shaped spore of the fungus.

Conidiospores are formed in sporodochia.

Perithecia

Bluish-black urn shaped structures formed by the fungus on a barley kernel

Ascospores are formed in perithecia.

Asci

Asci are formed in the perithecia and are shaped like a sock

Asci containing ascospores.