Rapid identification of crop pathogens with a smart analytical detector promises huge benefits for farming, the environment and our health

Many plant pathogens disperse in air across fields as spores of fungi, bacteria, or viruses, often carried on pollen, dust or organic fragments. Some can even survive extreme conditions and travel long distances, hopping continents at ease.

Farmers are naturally wary of them and, if there’s even a hint of the likelihood of a disease that could wreck crops, they will spray pesticides just to be on the safe side. But it’s a costly business, for the farmers and for the environment.

What farmers need is reliable information about the type and location of any infection in or near their fields, and they need that information quickly, preferably as an early warning. With such data to hand, they can spray more precisely and sparingly to protect their crops.

Plant pathologists at Rothamsted can sample large volumes of air...and transmit the result immediately

working prototype

Plant pathologists at Rothamsted have now developed a device that can sample large volumes of air for tiny particles, break the spores open to release DNA, identify DNA of targeted pathogens, and transmit the result immediately. This is a significant breakthrough.

In the past, spore detectors have become more compact and sensitive but have remained principally devices for obtaining samples, which had to be transferred to laboratories for analysis and identification. Laboratory techniques have improved and the information obtained has been crucial for disease forecasting. But the inherent delay is a handicap for farmers.

Tests have begun on a working prototype of the latest device, known as the DNA Spore Sampler, and supported by Innovate UK, which backs science and technology ideas, and by the Agriculture & Horticulture Development Board, which is funded by UK farmers and growers.

aerobiology knowledge and innovation

The new device is a development of an automatic air sampler, the Miniature Virtual Impactor (MVI), which Rothamsted produced about five years ago to identify particular, targeted organisms rapidly. Its success helped to secure funding for the latest work, as did the institute’s pedigree.

Plant pathologists at Rothamsted have been refining tools to detect airborne disease for nearly 70 years, following the development of the first spore detection device, the Hirst spore trap, by Jim Hirst, a pioneer of aerobiology, in the early 1950s. Hirst developed the trap initially to help to control potato blight and subsequently to study both the spread of fungal pathogens and the changing airborne concentrations of human allergens, such as dust and pollen.

For more information

Contact: Jon West

Read: West, J.S. et al., 2015, Annals of Applied Biology 166 (1): 4-17.

Date: May 2017