Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Save our vegetables! Why biosensing matters.

A couple of months ago (this says something about my blogging speed) the telegraph published an article describing a new fungal spore trap, which could in the future potentially be used to detect the deadly Ash Dieback fungus, and other foreign pathogens arriving on our shores.

What the Telegraph completely missed, however, was the importance of this invention for protection of our crops, not in the future, but now. The spore trap and coupled biosensor, designed by SYield consortium (funded by Syngenta and TSB) as a pilot project, has been specifically engineered to detect the spores of the deadly crop pathogen, Sclerotinia sclerotiorum.

Sclerotinia sclerotiorum is a soilborne fungus which is pathogenic to a wide range of agriculturally important plant species including carrots, beans, lettuce and oilseed rape. It causes stem and root rot, leading to crop damage and high yield losses where outbreaks occur.

Mmmmmm soggy carrots. [Source]

The nature of these outbreaks  is, however, sporadic, and with no way of predicting when Sclerotinia might strike, farmers have no choice but to adopt pre-emptive control measures, including routine preventative spraying of fungicides. While the cost of yield loss from failing to adequately protect crops is high, this prophylactic approach to disease management is also costly, both financially and ecologically: Production of fungicidal chemicals requires high energetic input, and their application may have negative environmental impacts. In addition to this, as with the overuse of antibiotics in human disease control, extensive use of fungicides may select for resistant strains of diseases, having a negative impact on future control.

In light of this, methods to detect agricultural pathogens in the field before they threaten crops are urgently needed in order to help farmers make decisions on whether and when to apply control measures. The early detection system developed by the SYield consortium may well provide a vital role in the future detection of invading tree diseases, but the importance of its application for detection of existing agricultural pathogens should not be overlooked.

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