Wheat field on iStock

Stuck for holiday gift ideas? How about … a chocolate bar-sized wheat DNA sequencer!

December 23, 2019

If you’re still on the lookout for agtech-themed holiday gifts, here’s a suggestion: How about a chocolate bar-sized portable DNA sequencer that accurately and quickly diagnoses wheat viruses? (More gift ideas welcome, by the way!)

The idea landed on the AFN desk courtesy of The American Phytopathological Society (APS), and we think it’s pretty neat. As any crop farmer can tell you, diagnosis of crop disease is crucial. But traditional methods, the APS informs us, “rely on the expertise of pathologists, who in turn rely on the physical appearance of disease symptoms, which can be similar to damage caused by other factors, such as nutrient deficiencies or environmental elements.”

Pathologists “also experience difficulty detecting coinfections and pathogens that do not infect aerial parts of the plant. Furthermore, there is no existing method for rapidly identifying unknown pathogens during an outbreak.”

A wheat blast fungus outbreak in Bangladesh in 2016 is an example of where a handheld sequencer could someday prove far more vital than a typical Thanksgiving gimmick. That outbreak spread across an estimated 15,000 hectares (16% of cultivated wheat area in the country) and resulted in yield losses as high as 100%.

The APS reports that scientists based at the USDA-ARS and Kansas State University have developed the new technology to rapidly identify viruses in wheat fields with significantly higher accuracy. They collected “four wheat samples from western Kansas and used a new harmonica-sized DNA sequencer and a computer program to quickly detect three different viruses in the samples. Furthermore, their results suggested that the samples contained a new virus strain.”

They are now working on improving the technique so that it can be used in field applications, the APS noted. Their research, described in “Wheat Virus Identification Within Infected Tissue Using Nanopore Sequencing Technology​,” is the first report of using the new portable DNA sequencing technology for wheat virus identification. These results have broad applications to plant and animal disease identification and field diagnostics technology. Not a bad gift — early or late.
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Any cutting edge agtech gifts spring to mind? Send them my way at richard@agfunder.com
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