Nano Tools for Managing Plant Diseases

Authors: Kiwamu Tanaka and Chakradhar Mattupalli, Department of Plant Pathology, Washington State University

This post highlights the work of researchers funded through the BIOAg program, a competitive grants program administered by CSANR, created to stimulate research, extension and education investments by WSU scientists and to advance the development, understanding, and use of biologically-intensive, organic and sustainable agriculture in Washington State.

There is no silver bullet to manage agricultural pests. Growers generally rely on a combination of cultural, genetic, chemical, and alternative pest management approaches to keep pest populations below economic threshold levels. Use of synthetic pesticides is thus an integral component of conventional pest management programs. However, improper use of pesticides can lead to potential issues such as pesticide residues, crop damage, human health hazards, and environmental pollution. Carefully monitoring pesticide usage is also important to avoid pathogens, insects, and weeds developing resistance. It becomes a balancing act to strive for yield maximization while keeping our environment safe and healthy for everyone. Is there potential for a solution that meets both of those goals?

Hands holding beaker and pouring a liquid into it
Figure 1. The main image depicts cellulose nanofibers (CNFs) in a suspension, while the insets showcase cellulose nanofibers observed under a compound microscope (400x magnification) and the chemical structure of cellulose, respectively. Image credits: N. Moroz.

Cellulose nanofibers (CNF) are one form of nanofibers, which are tiny strands of a given material (Figure 1). CNFs can be produced from woody pulp, as well as from byproducts of the papermaking process, which undergo various mechanical breakdown and chemical processes (Abe et al., 2007; Carter et al., 2021). As they possess unique physical properties such as low weight, elasticity, and a large surface area, they are used in food, medicine, cosmetics, and healthcare industries to develop lightweight materials, flexible coatings, and enhance absorption or reinforcement capabilities in products. These unique properties have recently been harnessed to protect plants from pathogens. Studies have shown that the application of CNFs to plant surfaces resulted in a reduction of disease severity caused by fungi and bacteria (Saito et al., 2021; Sakata et al., 2023), though CNFs are not a currently registered pesticide. Although the mode of action for such antimicrobial activity is yet to be understood, CNFs hold a promising future in agriculture. Most importantly, CNFs are nontoxic and derived from plant cellulose, which is one of the most abundant and renewable biomass sources in nature.

Research has also shown CNFs to serve as an adjuvant (enhancing agent) by strengthening the adhesion between plant leaf surfaces and chemical compounds, thereby increasing their effectiveness (Li et al., 2022; Tasnim et al., 2022; Zhang et al., 2022). Other studies have demonstrated that CNFs can modify soil physical properties, such as nutrient retention and soil erosion mitigation (Syakir et al., 2021; Kassem et al., 2022), indicating their potential as a soil amendment to enhance plant health.

two images of potatoes with disease spots and two images of potato plants with disease spots
Figure 2. Images of potato diseases such as early blight, late blight, silver scurf, and powdery scab (from the top left to bottom right). Image credits: N. Moroz and C. Mattupalli.

A team of WSU researchers, recently funded by the CSANR BIOAg Program, is enthusiastic about exploring the potential use of CNFs to manage potato diseases (Figure 2). The team is currently testing the utility of CNFs against both above and below ground diseases such as early blight, late blight, silver scurf, and powdery scab. They are also investigating CNF’s potential to mitigate potato diseases without triggering natural plant defense mechanisms, which generally cost the plant in terms of growth and yield.

By expanding the use of CNFs as non-toxic plant protectants, the team hopes to establish a biologically intensive management strategy that is renewable, non-polluting, and mutually advantageous for potato growers and industries. This is clearly an exciting area that demands more research, not only to assess effectiveness of CNFs but also to evaluate the return on investment, appropriate mode of delivery, scalability, and potential unwarranted environmental impacts.


Important! Some of the pesticides discussed in this post will be tested under an experimental use permit granted by WSDA. Application of a pesticide to a crop or site that is not on the label is a violation of pesticide law and may subject the applicator to civil penalties up to $7,500. In addition, such an application may also result in illegal residues that could subject the crop to seizure or embargo action by WSDA and/or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. It is your responsibility to check the label before using the product to ensure lawful use and obtain all necessary permits in advance.


Abe, K., Iwamoto, S., and Yano, H. (2007). Obtaining cellulose nanofibers with a uniform width of 15 nm from wood. Biomacromolecules 8, 3276–3278. doi: 10.1021/bm700624p.

Carter, N., Grant, I., Dewey, M., Bourque, M., and Neivandt, D. J. (2021). Production and characterization of cellulose nanofiber slurries and sheets for biomedical applications. Front Nanotech 3, 729743. doi: 10.3389/fnano.2021.729743.

Kassem, I., Ablouh, E.-H., El Bouchtaoui, F.-Z., Hannache, H., Ghalfi, H., Sehaqui, H., et al. (2022). Cellulose nanofibers/engineered biochar hybrid materials as biodegradable coating for slow-release phosphate fertilizers. ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng. 10, 15250–15262. doi: 10.1021/acssuschemeng.2c04953.

Li, H., Yoshida, S., Mitani, N., Egusa, M., Takagi, M., Izawa, H., et al. (2022). Disease resistance and growth promotion activities of chitin/cellulose nanofiber from spent mushroom substrate to plant. Carbohydr Polym 284, 119233. doi: 10.1016/j.carbpol.2022.119233.

Saito, H., Yamashita, Y., Sakata, N., Ishiga, T., Shiraishi, N., Usuki, G., et al. (2021). Covering soybean leaves with cellulose nanofiber changes leaf surface hydrophobicity and confers resistance against Phakopsora pachyrhizi. Front Plant Sci 12, 726565. doi: 10.3389/fpls.2021.726565.

Sakata, N., Shiraishi, N., Saito, H., Komoto, H., Ishiga, T., Usuki, G., et al. (2023). Covering cabbage leaves with cellulose nanofiber confers resistance against Pseudomonas cannabina pv. alisalensis. J Gen Plant Pathol 89, 53–60. doi: 10.1007/s10327-022-01105-1.

Syakir, M. I., Al Manasir, Y., Nor Ashikin, N. S. S., Yusuff, S., Zuknik, M., and Abdul Khalil, H. P. S. (2021). Application of cellulosic fiber in soil erosion mitigation: Prospect and challenges. BioRes 16, 4474–4522. doi: 10.15376/biores.16.1.Syakir.

Tasnim, R., Wang, L., Parit, M., and Zhang, Y.-J. (2022). Interactions of cellulose nanofibrils with a foliar fertilizer and wild blueberry leaves: potential to enhance fruit yield. ACS Agric. Sci. Technol. 2, 712–718. doi: 10.1021/acsagscitech.2c00118.

Zhang, C., Yang, X., Yang, S., Liu, Z., and Wang, L. (2022). Eco-friendly and multifunctional lignocellulosic nanofibre additives for enhancing pesticide deposition and retention. Chem Eng J 430, 133011. doi: 10.1016/j.cej.2021.133011.


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