MSU research build new tools to combat plant disease

A new research project will empower growers to make better decisions by giving them cutting-edge tools to diagnose and track the spread of crop diseases on their farms.

MultispeQ devices

EAST LANSING, Mich. – A new research project will empower growers to make better decisions by giving them cutting-edge tools to diagnose and track the spread of crop diseases on their farms.

Funded by a $465,000 nanotechnology grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the three-year project is led by Michigan State University (MSU) AgBioResearch scientists Brad Day and David Kramer. The project blends the work of their labs to develop a practical, cost-effective system for farmers to identify disease in their fields.

Currently, farmers in need of diagnostic testing for their crops must send collected tissue samples to a lab, a process which can cost about $20 per sample and take nearly a day to complete. The new technology developed by Day and Kramer’s labs is estimated to cost approximately $8 for every 32,000 samples and allow growers to test their crops in the field, receiving results instantaneously.

Kramer, Hannah Distinguished Professor in Photosynthesis and Bioenergetics in the MSU Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, has spent much of his career developing the MultispeQ, a handheld device that scans plant leaves and uploads their physiological data to PhotosynQ, a cloud-based, global database of plant information also developed by Kramer’s lab.

If Kramer’s device is the smartphone, Day’s lab developed the app that runs on it.

“Coupled with PhotosynQ, our technology brings rapid, highly specific point-of-care diagnostics to farmers,” Day, professor and associate department chair for research in the MSU Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences, said. “With this, a farmer could test his entire field in an afternoon for next to no cost, and make more informed decisions on how to target their spraying and other control practices.”

Amy Baetsen-Young, a Ph.D. candidate in Day’s lab, in collaboration with the lab of Evangelyn Alocilja in the MSU Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, developed a novel nanosensor procedure to detect pathogens in a sample of plant tissue. Alocilja’s lab has developed similar procedures for the detection of pathogens related to human disease, including from food, water, and infected individuals.

Specially treated gold nanoparticles, smaller than most viruses, easily bind with single-stranded DNA. Baetsen-Young determined that by heating a highly concentrated salt solution containing gold nanoparticles, a pathogen-specific DNA probe and plant tissue, the matching pathogen DNA, if present, will bind to the probe, creating a color change in the mixture that can be read by the MultispeQ device, alerting the user to even minute quantities of pathogen.

Baetsen-Young’s work focused on a particular disease, cucumber downy mildew, but Day says the procedure, or assay, can be applied to virtually any plant disease.

“This assay has no limits on which crops or pathogens it can be applied to.” Day said. “This is like a blood test at a hospital; a single tissue sample can be used for an entire battery of tests.”

Through this new grant, the team intends to take their nanosensor out of the controlled confines of the lab and into the field, where it will be tested under circumstances similar to those experienced by farmers.

The first year will see the team ensuring the nanoparticle assay and PhotosynQ work together as planned under field conditions while simultaneously refining their assays to target key crop diseases faced by Michigan farmers, particularly those afflicting soybeans and common beans. In the second year, Day plans to develop a digital map capable of using the information gathered by PhotosynQ to plot the locations and spread of pathogens across the agricultural landscape. Finally, in the third year, the team will focus on delivering their technology to farmers and providing training on its use.

“We want to put this affordable technology into the hands of everyone,” Day said. “This technology can empower farmers, no matter the size of their operation, to make better, science-based decisions for their businesses.”

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