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Using diatoms to protect grain exports

February 10, 2014
AlgaeIndustryMagazine.com

Diatoms to the rescue – photograph of diatoms arranged on a microscope slide  by W.M. Grant from the California Academy of Sciences Diatom Collection.

Diatoms to the rescue – photograph of diatoms arranged on a microscope slide
by W.M. Grant from the California Academy of Sciences Diatom Collection.

University of Adelaide researchers are using nanotechnology and the fossils of diatoms to develop a novel chemical-free and resistance-free way of protecting stored grain from insects.

The researchers are taking advantage of the unique properties of these single-celled algae. Diatoms have been called Nature’s nanofabrication factories because of their production of tiny (nanoscale) structures made from silica that have a range of properties of potential interest for nanotechnology.

“One area of our research is focused on transforming this cheap diatom silica, readily available as a by-product of mining, into valuable nanomaterials for diverse applications – one of which is pest control,” says Professor Dusan Losic, ARC Future Fellow in the University’s School of Chemical Engineering.

Dr. Dusan Losic, of the University of Adelaide’s School of Chemical Engineering is leading the diatom pest control research

Dr. Dusan Losic, of the University of Adelaide’s School of Chemical Engineering is leading the diatom pest control research

“There are two looming issues for the worldwide protection against insect pests of stored grain: firstly, the development of resistance by many species to conventional pest controls – insecticides and the fumigant phosphine – and, secondly, the increasing consumer demand for residue-free grain products and food,” Professor Losic says.

“In the case of Australia, we export grain worth about $8 billion each year – about 25 million tons – which could be under serious threat. We urgently need to find alternative methods for stored grain protection which are ecologically sound and resistance-free.”

The researchers are using a natural, non-toxic silica material based on the “diatomaceous earths” formed by the fossilization of diatoms. The material disrupts the insect’s protective cuticle, causing the insect to dehydrate.

“This is a natural and non-toxic material with a significant advantage being that, as only a physical mode of action is involved, the insects won’t develop resistance,” says Professor Losic.

“Equally important is that it is environmentally stable with high insecticidal activity for a long period of time. Therefore, stored products can be protected for longer periods of time without the need for frequent re-application.”

The project is being funded by the Grains Research and Development Corporation. The researchers are in the final stages of optimizing the formula of the material.

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