DNA sequencing technology will allow for rapid and early detection of fungal diseases
Every year around 30 per cent of crops worldwide are destroyed by pests and diseases, but scientists from three New Zealand universities have teamed up to develop a product that will enable farmers to detect diseases much earlier, allowing them to better manage their farms and potentially saving millions in lost crops.
The team consisting of Linton Winder from Unitec Institute of Technology, Pete Lockhart from Massey University and Simon Hodge from Lincoln University have been developing the solution for several years.
In true Kiwi fashion, the trio were sharing ideas over a few beers when talk turned to the issue of lost crops in the agriculture sector, with the 30 per cent loss figure "absolutely incredible", according to Winder.
A few years on and the team have developed a DNA sequencing technology that will allow for rapid and early detection of fungal diseases.
The technology is in the process of being refined and perfected but according to Lockhart, an evolutionary biologist, the benefits of the application are huge.
"The DNA technology we are using is at the moment having its widest application in the diagnosis of infectious disease in a clinical setting, however the technology also has great potential for agriculture," Lockhart said.
Winder said by the time diseases were noticed, most of the damage had already been done. He said pathogens and diseases were becoming increasingly resistant to pesticides, as most farmers tended to spray their crops as a precaution.
This was a global problem that could be remedied by only treating crops that had diseases, thus reducing the use of pesticides, Winder said.
The solution would boost the yield and quality of crops, resulting in millions of dollars worth of savings.
"The proportion of food produced which isn't eaten is absolutely astonishing," Winder said. "The overall percentage of crops lost is huge and even quite a small percentage drop in that loss actually creates a huge amount of additional food goinginto the food supply chain."
The technology uses a method called high throughput DNA sequencing - a sample can be taken from any plant, water or soil to test whether diseases or pathogens are present.
The test will allow samples to be compared against sequences from known diseases and pathogens.
Winder, an entomologist, said the process would previously have taken weeks or months but that with the rapid evolution of technology and the novel process developed by the team, this can now be done in less than half an hour.
"You could buy a little hand-held detector, walk out into a field and within 30 minutes it will tell you yes or no, is that disease there and do you need to spray or not?" Winder said. "That gives farmers a huge competitive advantage because it means they can choose early on how to manage and control that disease by applying a fungicide or managing that crop in an appropriate way," he said.
The technology is now moving towards full-scale field trials at Lincoln University - the last stage before being made available to the public.
Winder said the biggest barrier to the technology becoming widespread is the price of the detectors, with small hand-held lamp detectors retailing for a few thousand dollars, however, he said this figure will plummet rapidly over the coming few years. The team are looking to release their product to the market in about 18 months, and the team hoped to eventually target a global market.
On the hunt
• 30 per cent of crops worldwide are destroyed by pests and diseases.
• Scientists from three universities have teamed up to develop a product to detect diseases faster, potentially saving millions in lost crops.
• Technology uses high throughput DNA sequencing, with samples taken from any plant, water or soil.
• Team aiming to release a product in about 18 months.