Timing is critical when it comes to managing a disease like sclerotinia in canola. The concept of real-time disease monitoring with nano biosensors that can communicate with your cell phone might sound futuristic, but the steps in the process have been proven to work in a lab setting in Alberta.

“This is close to reality…all the parts are in place, we just need to put them together,” explains Xiujie (Susie) Li, senior research scientist with InnoTech Alberta in Vegreville.

At the heart of the biosensor is a 3.5 by 2.5 cm chip that was designed for medical analysis of DNA or proteins. By applying sclerotinia antibodies to the sensor, it can single out the target antigen. In this case the target is sclerotinia spores, but Li says it could also work for blackleg disease.

Research conducted in a growth chamber has shown the device can detect as few as five sclerotinia spores, as nanoparticles attached to the antibodies signal the spore population: “That we think is good enough for spore detection for disease, because you probably have more than that to determine a disease outbreak,” says Li.

They’ve also shown the signal from the nanoparticles can be processed electronically and converted into sharable data, such as an iPhone message when a defined threshold is reached.

Working with researchers at the University of Alberta, Li says they plan to connect the links in the process and bring them out to the field for testing in 2017. Further research is needed to determine and verify the correlation between spore counts and a disease outbreak, and how many sensors are required to accurately report sclerotinia pressure for a given area.

The retail cost for the sensor technology will be determined if or when it’s commercialized, but the components are affordable, notes Li.

“Each chip we use for the sensor is only $10. So it depends how many chips you need for the field,” she says. “It’s not as expensive as people think.”

The sclerotinia spore detector project is funded by the Alberta Canola Producers Commission, the Alberta Crop Industry Development Fund, Alberta Innovations Technology Futures and InnoTech Alberta.