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Biosensor to protect chocolate supplies

Technology News |
By Nick Flaherty

Researchers in the UK have devised a biosensor which tackles cocoa disease and aims to revitalize West Africa’s endangered cocoa industry that is the basis of chocolate.

Most chocolate consumers are naturally unaware of infections that can damage cocoa production; the cacao swollen shoot virus (CSSV) infection can lead to the death of cocoa trees and threaten the livelihoods of cocoa farmers.  

Researchers at the University of the West of England (UWE) are developing a handheld device which identifies whether or not the plant has the virus before any symptoms appear. The timely detection of disease enables early intervention to prevent it from spreading further, as well as offering economic benefits.

Currently the only way to detect CSSV in plant samples currently is to perform PCR tests in a laboratory with specialist equipment used by skilled personnel.  This is similar to the PCR tests performed to detect Covid-19 infection.

The two researchers are working with Mars Wrigley to tackle the prevalence of CSSV and enhancing cocoa production in the region.

“This is mobile rapid early detection – if samples were taken back to the lab for analysis, this would be expensive and time-consuming. For farmers, early detection means regular production of cocoa continues and they won’t lose the revenue from their crop,” said Dr. Joel Allainguillaume, Associate Professor in Conservation Science at UWE.

“With this device, there is a better likelihood of keeping it healthy, and therefore less pressure on the farmers’ finances, allowing them to do things like send their children to school. This will have a significant impact on the economic prospects of cocoa farmers in West Africa,” he said.

The team are now looking into the feasibility of production of the device, and test screening in the field in areas where the virus has been identified.

In the future, the team intends its sensor to function as an optical sensor. At present, they are developing a bespoke device to help them achieve exceptional sensitivity in the presence of plant material.  

“Our aim is to be able to monitor the epidemiology of the disease, as well as test new planting material,” said Dr Jackie Barnett, Senior Research Fellow in the Health and Applied Science Faculty. “As a result of developing highly sensitive and specific tests to detect CSSV in pre-symptomatic trees, we can make sure that new plants are not sent out that would grow into infected trees.” 

Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana supply around 70% of the world’s cocoa production market. CSSV is devastating for cocoa industry. CSSV infection has resulted in approximately a 5 – 15% reduction in cocoa pod yield. The disease is unique to West Africa and was found in the 1920s/1930s in Ghana and the Ivory Coast.

The cocoa decline has led to CSSV eradication programs to fight the infection head on by destroying countless infected cocoa trees.   200 million trees have been removed to try to tackle the problem but it has had no effect.

Most of the cocoa beans imported and consumed in the UK come from West Africa where Cacao Swollen Shoot Virus disease (CSSVd) has been identified as the main disease threat to productivity, where about 15% of the orchard is infected in Ghana and most of the cacao growing areas have reported infections in Cote d’Ivoire causing up to 35% losses.

www.uwe.ac.uk

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