I am often in awe of the agricultural researchers, which shouldn’t be surprising since I really have no understanding of 99.9999 per cent of what they do, or how they do it. Yet they manage to come up with answers.
Recently I was speaking with three researchers in Alberta working to identify and quantify the invisible crop disease spores that fly around in the air that could potentially infect crops with diseases such as sclerotinia in canola, fusarium head blight, in cereal crops and white mould in pulse crops — just for starters.
They are working with or developing technology referred to as biosensors. The biosensors mounted in the field at about crop canopy height collect the airborne spores (and anything else flying by). That’s the relatively easy part. The head scratcher comes in developing a DNA test (it can involve developing antibodies that bind with very specific disease spores) that can identify what disease it is, but also quantify it as well.
So components inside these little biosensors boxes collect the spores — today we have some sclerotinia spores and a few of these are fusarium head blight spores, and oh, yes we also have some rust spores. So you know what’s flying around out there, but then the sensors can also quantify the spore load as well. Perhaps the sclerotinia spore load is very heavy, while the fusarium head blight spore load is light. All good information.
But wait, there’s more. The goal is not just to identify what’s floating around out there, but also have these devices deliver some sort of alert to a farmer. At Agriculture Canada in Lethbridge they are working to develop a colour-coding system for the biosensor, to identify each disease with a different colour. For example, if you see red that’s fusarium head blight, while blue is sclerotinia and so on.
At the InnoTech Alberta research centre in Vegreville, the plan is to have their biosensor read and quantify the spores and then send a message via Bluetooth to the farmer’s smart phone. “There’s a heavy load of sclerotinia spores over your canola crop, you better be prepared to apply a fungicide.”
And all this research is working with microscopic particles, identifying antibodies or rapid DNA tests to provide an early (real time) warning system to farmers about the risk (or better yet no risk) of disease development. Scientists Claudia Sheedy at the Lethbridge research centre, and Susie Li at the Innotech centre in Vegreville takes it all in stride — “yes it’s a challenge, but we’ll get there.” Both researchers hope or expect over the next two or three growing seasons to be lining up some commercialization of their respective technology.
And if counting spores isn’t enough of a challenge, I was reading in the Western Producer where at the University of Saskatchewan PhD biology student Rachel Parkinson and biology professor Jack Gray are wrangling locusts to measure the effect of neonicotinoid (commonly referred to as neonic) insecticides on flying insects.
They built a one metre wide and tall wind tunnel, two metres long. It has a fan to create airflow, and on one end is a projector screen where they project a dot that can be enlarged to simulate an obstacle that is getting closer as it is grows in size.
Here’s the tricky part. To prevent the flying locusts from smacking into the far wall they tie a rope (actually it is fishing line) to a locust leg allowing it to still be able to fly into the wind current. Some bugs are exposed to a low dose of neonics and others aren’t. The point of the project is to observe how well or how differently the treated versus untreated bugs fly and take evasive measures to avoid hitting the approaching dot. Parkinson says it is pretty clear the treated locusts appear to be confused and have trouble manoeuvring. But she’s not done yet. She plans to repeat the project this year using honeybees. Never mind the results, I think it would be interesting just to see her apply tethers to a bunch of bees. Maybe she does it while they are sleeping.