Published: December 21, 2011, Chronicle Online
By Aaron Munzer

Organic growers could soon have another weapon in their arsenal, courtesy of the humble worm.

Cornell researchers have found that vermicompost — the product if composting using various species of worms — is not only an excellent fertilizer, but could also help prevent a pathogen that has been a scourge to greenhouse growers. By teaming up with a New York composting business, they believe they have found an organic way to raise healthier plants with less environmental impact.

Building on previous research conducted by Professor Eric Nelson’s research group in the Department of Plant Pathology and Plant-Microbe Biology, Ph.D. student Allison Jack has shown that beneficial microbes in vermicompost can colonize a seed’s surface and protect it from infection by releasing a substance that interferes with the chemical signaling between the host and the pathogen.

“We know the microbes are actually adding something the zoospores don’t like,” Jack said. “Now we just have to find out what it is.”

Eric Carr, a master’s student in Nelson’s lab, is focusing on the suppressive qualities of vermicompost on a different stage of the life cycle of Pythium aphanidermatum, a pathogen whose mobile spores infect seedlings, causing them to “damp off,” or wither, shortly after germination. The research, he said, helps contribute to opportunities to turn waste products like manure into important disease-suppressive soil amendments.

“At some point in our lives, we’re going to have to start using these types of natural resources and use them more efficiently; when that times comes, we’ll have a better idea of how it works,” Carr said.

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