Revolution in diagnostics promises early disease warnings for farmers

Posted on: 17/01/2019

Advances in microbiology, imaging and organic chemistry will be discussed at a meeting on 13 February in Cambridge.

New types of rapid testing for soil health, mastitis, bovine TB, Fusarium and post-harvest disease are to be discussed – many for the first time – at the Agri-Tech East Pollinator ‘The Three Rs of Plant and Animal Diagnostics: Rapid, Reliable and Robust’ in Cambridge on 13 February 2019.

Currently arable or animal health testing can take weeks of culturing in a laboratory or rely on an immune response as an indicator of disease, rather than detecting actual disease presence.

Director of Agri-Tech East, Dr Belinda Clarke, comments:

“Speed is vital in effective disease management; if farmers and growers have access to cost-effective tools that are simple to use on-farm then they can take a range of preventative measures to pre-empt problems. Additionally if the tests show that there isn’t a problem this can mitigate unnecessary treatment and the need for routine spraying.

“We have selected a number of diagnostics that are promising to revolutionise disease management and at ‘The Three Rs’ event the developers will explain how the novel technology behind them works.”

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Latest diagnostic technologies to be discussed will include:

In-field sensor for evaluating living microorganisms in soil – Dr Kerry O’Donnelly Weaver of FungiAlert has developed a soil health test that delivers a more cost effective, insightful assessment of soil health than traditional testing methods.

Kerry says:

“The moment soil is taken out of the field its dynamics change so you don’t get an accurate representation of what’s actually active in your field. Our in situ sensors enable an assessment of the soil biology and identify microorganisms that will have an impact – both pathogenically and beneficially. We’re offering growers and agronomists critical information that has not yet been available until now.”

Hand-held diagnostic to test for mastitis – mastitis is the inflammation of a cow’s udder, a painful disease that costs the UK cattle industry £41.8million a year. After a long wait for test results for one of her animals, Katie Cavanagh decided that there was a need for a rapid diagnostic – which could be used to tackle this major endemic disease. By miniaturising a human diagnostic method, she has developed a handheld device that vets and farmers can use on-farm, to test milk and diagnose the condition. She is now seeking investment to bring the product to market.

Katie explains:

“This technology already exists in human health. We’re simply taking what they do in a microbiology lab and putting it onto printed circuit boards. It’s much more accessible and affordable. If you can diagnose quickly and accurately, you can treat more effectively and reduce yield loss as well as potential loss of the animal.”

Rapid, accurate blood and milk tests for bovine TB and Johne’s disease – both of these chronic diseases are caused by mycobacteria and current tests have proved inadequate to control the diseases – with over 43,000 cattle slaughtered in the UK due to bovine TB in last year. PBD Biotech has developed Actiphage Rapid, a biotechnology that can confirm the presence or absence of mycobacteria in blood or milk within six hours, enabling infected animals to be identified and isolated. The milk test can also be used for quality assurance, to confirm that dairy products are free from mycobacteria.

Dr Berwyn Clarke, CEO of PBD Biotech, explains:

“Vet Dick Sibley has used the Actiphage test on a farm in Devon to achieve TB free status for the first time in 6 years. This is a huge achievement and provides a beacon of hope for farmers. Following this success, Actiphage has been included in the Government’s protocol for Exceptional Private Use for chronic TB breakdowns in England. The test uses novel technology and we are involved in extensive international testing to meet regulatory requirements.”

Detection of infection on seed pre-planting – Analytik’s VideometerLab uses multi spectral imaging to rapidly and accurately identify infection on the surface of seeds, such as Fusarium, Michrodochium and Alternaria. Isaac Gilbert from Analytik explains the technology has the capability to provide growers with greater insights into disease susceptibility – down to individual grain level.

Isaac says:

“In commercial terms this is early stage, with a handful of important pathosystems ready for use, but we’re excited to share with the industry what wealth of opportunities are in the pipeline.”

Multi-crop post-harvest storage disease sensor – RoboScientific senses the release of Volatile Organic Compounds to detect the presence of disease in crops post-harvest.

Angie Curtis of RoboScientific explains:

“If we have flu, we sweat and sneeze and, generally, smell different. In a similar way, our range of sensors can be installed in a barn for consistent regular monitoring. It knows what the storage environment, for example, for onions or potatoes, should ‘smell’ like and, if it senses deterioration say by the onset of rot, the automatic monitor sends an alert to the farmer.

“Similarly, our technology is fast and accurate in establishing health issues in livestock – for example in chickens, it can announce the presence of a range of diseases including Campylobacter, Ecoli and Clostrideum Perfringens within 36 hours of it arriving. This product won’t be on the market until the end of next year, so Agri-Tech East attendees will be getting advance information about this cutting-edge detector.”


The event ‘The Three Rs of Plant and Animal Diagnostics – Rapid, Reliable and Robust (Enough)’ will be held on Wednesday 13 February from 2.00-5.30pm at Incubyte Ltd, Cambridge Innovation Park, CB25 9QE. For more information and to register please click here.

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