Imperial experts to develop low-cost digital crop virus sensors with $1m grant


Close up photo of three heads of corn. They look dried and miscoloured and are obviously diseased.

Infectious diseases can devastate crops, farmers, and populations

Researchers have received $1million to develop low-cost digital sensors that detect viruses in plants and crops with international partners.

Crop diseases can have devastating effects on farmers and food security, particularly in developing countries, which are more likely to depend on agricultural production to feed their populations. 

With our partners we will exploit the latest advances in material science, chemistry and electronics to help African farmers diagnose viral plant diseases fast and inexpensively to prevent plant pandemics.  Dr Firat Guder Department of Bioengineering

Detecting plant viruses early therefore helps to prevent disease spread, crop failure, and ensure food security. Sending samples to centralised laboratories for testing, however, can be costly and slow. 

A $1 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will support Imperial researchers working with a network of partners in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia—including IITA, Inqaba Biotec, and Silicon Craftto develop, manufacture and deploy virus-detecting sensors across East Africa.

Principal Investigator Dr Firat Guder from Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering said: “With our international partners we will exploit the latest advances in material science, chemistry and electronics to help African farmers, extension officers and scientists diagnose viral plant diseases fast and inexpensively to prevent plant pandemics. 

“This grant will also allow us and our partners to train engineers, exchange knowledge to sow the seeds of a new industry in Africa. Connecting developing nations from Africa and Asia together toward a common and important goal makes this project even more exciting."

Co-investigators include Professor Tony Cass at the Department of Chemistry and Dr Laura Gonzalez-Macia at the Department of Bioengineering, as well as George Mahuku and James Legg at IITA.

The sensors 

The sensors are designed so that crop farmers can add plant samples to a wireless device before touching it to the back of a smartphone, where the results are displayed.  

Hands of woman customer make payment with credit card with NFC technology on terminal device.
The sensors use NFCs which are built into cards, phone, and watches for contactless payments

The sensor uses near-field communication (NFC) to send results to smartphones - the same technology used for wireless contactless payments on phones, payment cards, and travel cards. 

The results would then be shared with government and non-government organisations for disease surveillance for appropriate action. 

The partners will begin by detecting the viruses behind cassava brown streak disease and maize lethal necrosis disease. Both are prevalent in East Africa, and cassava brown streak disease is considered the largest threat to food security in the region. 

The researchers will also use the funding to develop low-cost and simple ways for crop growers to prepare samples in the field and refine the smartphone, cloud and web apps for data acquisition, online/offline storage and visualisation of results. They will work with the partners to ensure the future sustainability of this innovation by planning the next steps for commercialisation and high-volume manufacturing. 

The researchers hope the sensors will enable large-scale surveillance of crop diseases in low-income regions and around the world. As well as being cheaper and faster, the team hope the tool will also rival the performance of molecular testing in centralised laboratories.

Images: Shutterstock



Caroline Brogan

Caroline Brogan
Communications Division

Click to expand or contract

Contact details

Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 3415

Show all stories by this author


Food-security, Viruses, Comms-strategy-Real-world-benefits, Engineering-Resilient-and-secure-infrastructure, South-East-Asia, Global-challenges-Engineering, Engineering-Bioeng, Sustainability, Global-challenges-Natural-world, Africa, Environment, Comms-strategy-International-university, Comms-strategy-Wider-society, Strategy-collaboration, Infectious-diseases, REF
See more tags

Leave a comment

Your comment may be published, displaying your name as you provide it, unless you request otherwise. Your contact details will never be published.