Fusarium head blight (FHB) of cereals is a disease complex. Fusarium graminearum is the major pathogen worldwide, while F culmorum, F avenaceum and F. poae are also associated with this disease. In addition to the true Fusarium species, Microdochium nivale may also cause head blight and is particularly prevalent where cooler, wetter conditions prevail. Other species such as F. sporotrichioides, F. equiseti and even F. verticillioides may also be of significance in particular situations. FHB is of particular concern because of the ability of the Fusarium species to produce mycotoxins in the grain that are harmful to human and animal consumers. The predominant mycotoxins within cereals are the trichothecenes, chiefly deoxynivalenol, nivalenol and their acetylated derivatives, along with T-2, HT-2, diacetoxyscirpenol and neosolaniol. This paper reviews the use of molecular techniques to identify the individual causal agents and to quantify their relative amounts within plant tissue. Diagnostic and quantitative polymerase chain reaction assays have been developed to detect and quantify individual fungal species within the disease complex and, where relevant, to differentiate between chemotypes within a single species. Assays to determine the type of toxin produced, or monitor the regulation of toxin production also provide valuable tools for understanding this disease. These techniques are being used to dissect the disease complex into its component parts in order to study interactions between the pathogens and their host and between the pathogens themselves as well as to determine the influence of environmental factors on the disease and the toxins produced by these fungi.
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