Prospects for reducing fumonisin contamination of maize through genetic modification

Environ Health Perspect. 2001 May;109 Suppl 2(Suppl 2):337-42. doi: 10.1289/ehp.01109s2337.


Fumonisins (FB) are mycotoxins found in (italic)Fusarium verticillioides-infected maize grain worldwide. Attention has focused on FBs because of their widespread occurrence, acute toxicity to certain livestock, and their potential carcinogenicity. FBs are present at low levels in most field-grown maize but may spike to high levels depending on both the environment and genetics of the host plant. Among the strategies for reducing risk of FB contamination in maize supplied to the market, development and deployment of Fusarium ear mold-resistant maize germplasm is a high priority. Breeding for increased ear mold tolerance and reduced mycotoxin levels is being practiced today in both commercial and public programs, but the amount of resistance achievable may be limited due to complicated genetics and/or linkage to undesirable agronomic traits. Molecular markers can be employed to speed up the incorporation of chromosomal regions that have a quantitative effect on resistance (quantitative trait loci). Transgenic approaches to ear mold/mycotoxin resistance are now feasible as well. These potentially include genetically enhanced resistance to insect feeding, increased fungal resistance, and detoxification/prevention of mycotoxins in the grain. An example of the first of these approaches is already on the market, namely transgenic maize expressing Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) toxin, targeted to the European corn borer. Some Bt maize hybrids have the potential to reduce FB levels in field-harvested grain, presumably through reduced feeding of Bt-susceptible insects in ear tissues. However, improved ear mold resistance per se is still an important goal, as the plant will still be vulnerable to noninsect routes of entry to (italic)Fusarium. A second approach, transgene-mediated control of the ability of Fusarium to infect and colonize the ear, could potentially be achieved through overexpression of specific antifungal proteins and metabolites, or enhancement of the plant's own defense systems in kernel tissues. This has not yet been accomplished in maize, although promising results have been obtained recently in other monocots versus other fungal and bacterial pathogens. Achieving reproducible and stable enhanced ear mold resistance under field conditions will be immensely challenging for biotechnologists. A third approach, transgene strategies aimed at preventing mycotoxin biosynthesis, or detoxifying mycotoxins in planta, could provide further protection for the grower in environments where FBs present a risk to the crop even when the maize is relatively resistant to Fusarium mold. In one example of such a strategy, enzymes that degrade FBs have been identified in a filamentous saprophytic fungus isolated from maize, and corresponding genes have been cloned and are currently being tested in transgenic maize.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Breeding
  • Carboxylic Acids / chemistry
  • Carboxylic Acids / metabolism*
  • Carboxylic Acids / toxicity
  • Carcinogens, Environmental / chemistry
  • Carcinogens, Environmental / metabolism*
  • Carcinogens, Environmental / toxicity
  • Endotoxins
  • Feeding Behavior
  • Fumonisins*
  • Fusarium* / metabolism
  • Genetic Engineering*
  • Genetic Markers
  • Immunity, Innate / genetics
  • Insect Control
  • Insecta
  • Models, Molecular
  • Mycotoxins / chemistry
  • Mycotoxins / metabolism*
  • Mycotoxins / toxicity
  • Pest Control, Biological
  • Plant Diseases / genetics
  • Plant Proteins
  • Plants, Genetically Modified
  • Zea mays / genetics*
  • Zea mays / metabolism
  • Zea mays / microbiology


  • Carboxylic Acids
  • Carcinogens, Environmental
  • Endotoxins
  • Fumonisins
  • Genetic Markers
  • Mycotoxins
  • Plant Proteins
  • fumonisin B1