MARPLE: the real-time cereal killer detective

Green terraced field in Ethiopia

Credit: helovi/GettyImages

BBSRC-funded researchers have created an advanced plant disease detection system, which is helping to improve crop protection and food security in Ethiopia.

Wheat yellow rust is spreading worldwide and causing wheat yield losses of 10-70% and global crop losses of 5.5 million tonnes annually. Yellow rust spores can migrate long distances, while their genomes mutate quickly to produce highly diverse populations which are difficult to control.

Researchers at the John Innes Centre (JIC) have used a mobile, real-time plant pathogen diagnosis device to detect wheat pathogens in the field.

The portable device, called MARPLE (Mobile and Real-time PLant disEase) diagnostics, detects which strain of the fungus pathogen is infecting a wheat crop in just two days, so users can make fast decisions to control the disease and protect harvests. The MARPLE kit is designed for use in the field. It fits in a suitcase and does not need any additional laboratory equipment. Previously, infected samples were sent to specialist labs for testing, which took many months.

Ethiopia is sub-Saharan Africa’s largest wheat producer and is considered a gateway for new rust pathogen strains entering from Asia. MARPLE is being rolled out across five research hubs in major wheat-growing areas in Ethiopia.

The real-time cereal killer detective, Dr Diane Saunders from the JIC, says the whole MARPLE diagnostics technique was tested in the back of a car:

The kit is as simple as possible. It doesn’t need access to additional laboratory equipment, so everything you need to use is in a single suitcase and people can just move it between locations. It’s also been set up with the needs of Ethiopia in mind. We can run all elements on battery packs and it doesn’t need any internet access.

Last updated: 11 March 2021

NOTEThis is the first phase of our new website – let us know if you have feedback or would like to help us test new developments.