When mold creeps across strawberries, customers flee. Scientists at Cornell University's Agricultural Experiment Station in Geneva, N.Y., are fighting back with mold-eating enzymes derived from a soil-based fungus called trichoderma. This fungus releases enzymes that digest chitin, the sugar chains that strengthen the mold's cell walls, causing the cells to leak cytoplasm and die.
"Since humans and animals don't have chitin, the enzyme may be a benign alternative to chemical fungicides," says lab manager Christopher Hayes. As for bugs, which do have chitin, he says any that are munching on crops deserve to die. In tests, mold-fighting trichoderma has been used to coat seeds and been placed in pellet form in furrows among such crops as cotton, cucumbers, eggplant, corn, and tobacco. Hayes says he expects approval soon from the Food & Drug Administration to put trichoderma on plant leaves and fruit.