A Conversation with...
Professor Neil Boonham is the Chair of Applied Crop Science at Newcastle University’s Institute for AgriFood Research and Innovation. We chatted to him about developments in in-field diagnostics and the frustrations of the job.
How do you generally introduce yourself and the work you do?
As a plant pathologist and I usually explain my work as developing methods that can help farmers make better decisions.
How would you describe your day job to someone who is not a scientist/farmer/researcher?
I am a teacher and researcher exploring better ways to control plant diseases.
What is in field diagnostics, and how does it work?
I am hoping one good thing to come out of COVID will be an appreciation of viruses and diagnostics! But in-field diagnostics are tests that give results sufficiently fast that you can make decisions based on the results. You don’t have to send a sample to the lab, wait for the result and go back to the field to take action.
Where were these tools developed?
The original in-field tests were lateral flow assays developed as pregnancy testing kits by Unipath. I was lucky enough to be part of the group, led by Chris Danks (Innovate UK) and Ian Barker (CIP) where we adapted the format to detect plant viruses and launched a product called Pocket Diagnostic and a spin out company called Forsite Diagnostics, later purchased by Abingdon Health Care. Later we added DNA amplification methods based on qPCR and LAMP to the types of techniques that can be done in the field. DNA methods improve sensitivity and precision of the tests for many applications.
What things do they diagnose and how is this beneficial to a grower?
You can develop a field test for almost any pathogen or pest and now also for any trait (e.g. resistance mutations) within the pathogen or pest.
What are the current challenges in developing in field diagnostics?
Field tests have been adopted for use by inspection services looking for the presence of quarantine pests, where the organisms and actions are well defined. The first key challenge for us is generating data demonstrating the value of the approach to farmers for endemic problems. An example is testing to understand the resistance status of a pest before making a management decision, where the alternative is generally to spray using a best guess product based on knowledge of cropping history. We don’t yet have the data but we expect that the test based approach will improve efficacy, reduce selection pressure for resistance and save money. Another challenge is time, stopping to perform a test, prior to spraying takes time, so automated data capture is a second key research focus.
Where do you see this field developing in the future? Will we ever see growers doing these tests, or will they still need a lab/trained person to make sense of them?
I would like to think that in-time we will see growers using these tools directly, putting them in the driving seat when it comes to understanding which management practice to use. But to get there we may see samples being tested in the lab in the first instance with expert interpretation being communicated to the grower. This is an area where AI will no doubt make an impact, with smart ‘digital agronomy’ applications learning the best course of action by combining diagnostic data, actions and outcomes
What role does CHAP play in your research/developing solutions for the sector?
While CHAP’s value initially started with its assets I believe its biggest asset now is its partnership network and ability to rapidly mobilise consortia of people to approach a challenge in the sector. I have been lucky enough to be involved in those groups which is pretty exciting.
What do you think will be the biggest area of focus/biggest change in the sector in 10 years’ time?
Meeting net zero targets while maintaining a viable food production industry.
What advice would you give to recent new entrants to this specialism– is there something you wish you had known before you took a particular direction?
Sometimes I wish I had become an electrician! The most frustrating part of the job is the treadmill of winning research funding to take ideas forward, which sometimes makes me think I wish I had a career doing something people really want. So be prepared for the many and frequent knockbacks you will receive in your research career.
What would you like to be remembered for?
I hope that some of the methods I develop or evolutions of methods get used by someone to do something useful.