Scientists at Rothamsted Research in the UK are to begin work on two projects, both of which will focus on the real time detection of fungal disease pressure in cereal crops and oilseed rape.

Conceived to alert tillage farmers and growers prior to visible symptoms actually developing within crops, the work should aid the timely application of fungicides.

The first project is called Arable Alert. This aims to produce an automated air sampling device, which will be able to use a DNA-based method to detect spores of key pathogens and associated genetic traits such as fungicide resistance.

The results will be sent by text, along with weather data to a web-based information portal, which will be accessible to growers. The devices can be operated as a network (to enhance information quality).

IT systems will augment currently available infection models with the information on airborne spore presence to produce a disease risk alert in time for application of crop protection products.

The research will use two new automated devices, plus a network of traditional disease warning systems, to provide general information on disease risk regionally. In addition, individual farmers or consultants would be free to purchase and operate the devices to get more farm or pathogen-specific information if they wished.

The second project is a Sclerotinia risk live-reporting system for oilseed rape. Sclerotinia is a fungal disease which produces black, seed-like structures (sclerotia) and can live for long periods in the soil and cause disease in a wide range of plants.

In this project, Rothamsted scientists will coordinate air sampling at different sites in the UK and test samples each week for airborne Sclerotinia spores. The research will also test collected petal samples to understand the link between airborne spores and crop infection.

Rothamsted’s Professor Jon West pointed out that integrating new diagnostic methods with air sampling technology to monitor the air for pathogens is a new area of precision agriculture that will help growers to know exactly when to apply crop protection products.

“In time, this approach could enhance disease control in a wide range of crops as part of integrated pest management,” he said.