Detecting Plant Diseases? There's an App for that

© Photo by G.L. Kohuth
MSU researcher Syed Hashsham has invented a handheld, low-cost application that can perform genetic analysis.

How do you identify plant diseases, keep pathogens from spreading and help protect the food supply? The old way was to collect field samples, send them to a lab ... and wait. The new way: An app that works with an iPod Touch or Android-based tablet (how inclusive) and can ID a plant pathogen in 10-30 minutes. The technology, called Gene-Z, was developed by Michigan State University scientists and is being developed for the market. Gene-Z is not only a gee-whiz project; it's designed to speed treatments and keep pathogens from spreading.

In more detail, the Gene-Z invention can detect cancer in plants and crops. It was developed by Syed Hashsham, professor of civil and environmental engineering at MSU, and has already been used to detect a new disease devastating cucumber crops in the United States. The app was unveiled and demonstrated for the first time in public at a recent National Plant Diagnostic Network conference in Berkeley, California.

To use Gene-Z, you take a swab for pathogens, transfer the sample to a microfluidic chip, and insert it into the device. In 10-30 minutes, the app can ID the pathogen, its genotype and its amounts.

“We’ve already successfully proven Gene-Z’s capacity for quantifying cancer markers,” Hashsham says. “With this application, we can speed the analysis of pathogens in plants, water and food with the ultimate goal of improving the safety and security of food supplies anywhere in the world.”

That hopefully also means less pesticide use and more sustainable farming operations. Hashsham is working with MSU Technologies to commercialize the product. So some day, a farmer may be able to download and use it. The project was paid for with a grant from the Michigan Economic Development Corp. and AquaBioChip, the latter of which also is working on quick pathogen identification in air and water.

Besides Hashsham, others involved in the development included James Tiedje, MSU distinguished professor of microbiology and molecular genetics, a team of graduate students led by Robert Stedtfeld (now an MSU postdoctoral researcher), and a wolverine: Erdogan Gulari, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Michigan.

Go Blue. Go Green. Just go and keep developing more stuff like this. Quick, easy technology that fits in your pocket.

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Tags: Agriculture | iPhone | Michigan

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