April 7, 2021 – Agricultural technology company NuPhY Plants has received a USDA innovation grant to develop a rapid, wide-ranging, cost-effective virus detection test. Viral plant infections cost the global horticultural industry upwards of $60 billion every year.
Dr. Seanna Hewitt, a genomics scientist with NuPhY, says that current virus-testing methods are slow, limited in their detection capacity, and expensive. “NuPhY aims to provide a new virus-screening service, based on double-stranded RNA sequencing, which will address the limitations of traditional diagnostic methods and provide our customers with accurate and cost-effective diagnoses of their crops in a timely manner.”
Double-stranded RNA sequencing, Hewitt explains, or dsRNAseq, “involves high-throughput sequencing of actively replicating viral genomic material. By this method we are able to quickly diagnose our customer’s crops, even when viruses are present in low abundance.”
“A diagnostic technology such as this is badly needed by the horticultural industry, especially the tree-fruit industry,” says Dr. Amit Dhingra, chief science officer for NuPhY. “Apple, pear, and cherry growers are among those that are currently underserved in testing capacity, and other crop species are suffering similar limitations.”
Hewitt says that some 50% of Washington state cherry trees are likely infected with Little Cherry Virus-2, which results in unsalable fruit of small size, with poor color and flavor. Fruit trees are especially hard hit by viruses, Hewitt explains, because “viruses are easily spread through insect vectors; through direct transmission, such as grafting; and through certain agricultural practices, such as not cleaning pruners between trees.” Worse, infected trees cannot be cured, they must be dug up, destroyed, and replaced—an expensive proposition that growers would like to avoid.
NuPhY is already well established as a vendor of disease-free plants genetically confirmed as true-to-type. The company pioneered the use of an optimized, quality-controlled propagation process called MultiPHY™ that produces high-quality, healthy plants.
Hewitt says that she anticipates deployment of the new virus diagnostic test within the year and the next phase of the grant will allow NuPhY to optimize the process to bring the services at a reduced cost and higher throughput to the growers and nurseries.
“It’s technically challenging,” she says, and adds that NuPhY is bringing not only its own scientific expertise to bear on the test’s development, but also its well-established partnerships with researchers at Washington State University including Dr. Scott Harper, Clean Plant Center Northwest and Bernardita Sallato, WSU Tree Fruit Extension Specialist in Prosser, Wash. Harper will provide experimental controls and help validate the test, while Sallato will provide infected plant material for testing purposes.
The approximately $100,000 grant funding is from the USDA’s Small Business Innovation Research program. SBIR grants seek to foster “high quality research related to important scientific problems and opportunities in agriculture that could lead to significant public benefits.”