Brazil And U.S. Scientists Create App To Monitor Wheat Diseases Worldwide

Wheat with wheat blast, one of the main diseases that attack the crop. (Photo: Flávio Martins Santana)

(September 25, 2018) - Researchers from the University of Passo Fundo (UPF), Embrapa and the University of Kansas (KU) have developed an app with the aim to encourage surveillance of the crops and to form a database on wheat blast epidemics in the world. Pic-a-Wheat-Field can be accessed from any cell phone. The app can be downloaded to a smartphone (iOS or Android) and new users have to create a new account to log in. The goal is that, in the upcoming months, the app interacts with, Sisalert, a technology developed by Embrapa that analyzes climate data and assesses the risk of crop epidemics.

The system was developed aiming at interaction with growers or with technical assistance in the data supply. All the user needs to do is turn on the phone's GPS before photographing the crop or the spikes with wheat blast symptoms. The geographical coordinates (latitude and longitude) will be extracted from the photos and identified in the map for a location in the globe.

A database algorithm verifies the existence of a weather station within a 100-km radius from where the picture was taken, and whether a wheat blast infected wheat field is reported, and the technology assesses the co-relation between the climate and disease outbreaks. The data collected by the system will be used to fine-tune models to simulate wheat blast outbreaks based on weather data, observes the Embrapa Wheat researcher Jose Maurício Fernandes.

With the login and password generated in the app, users can access Pic-a-Wheat Field from any device - in English, Portuguese and Spanish - and visualize the map with the distribution of wheat croplands with the disease (picture below). The wheat blast distribution map will facilitate the adoption of control measures on the verge of an epidemic or even in the total absence of the disease, Fernandes explains.

Interaction with Embrapa's Sisalert

For research purposes, the wheat blast reports are going to add to a database throughout the years, allowing both the assessment of the spread of the disease and the aggressiveness of the fungus at every wheat harvest season. For users, one of the advantages is Pic-a-Wheat Field's interaction with monitoring systems (such as the Brazilian Sisalert) that will warn users through messages about the risk of epidemics in the next seven days, which guides the optimal moment to apply fungicides to reduce damages in the crop. “Right now users can sign in and only send photos to locate the incidence of wheat blast, but the app should be fully operational by the end of the yearâ€, concludes the researcher Willingthon Pavan, from the University of Passo Fundo.

The Pic-a-Wheat Field app is one of the results of the research funded by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) on wheat blast control in wheat and rice. The team coordinated by the University of Kansas (KU) researcher Barbara Valent comprises researchers from Brazil, Bolivia, Paraguay, Mexico and Bangladesh. The project aims at generating new solutions in monitoring and biotechnology to fight wheat blast, with action to develop resistant germplasm, create real time epidemic alert systems, and disseminate management strategies for the use of fungicides to control the disease, Valent explains.

One of the diseases that most threaten wheat

Wheat blast is one of the main diseases of economic impact on wheat. The causal agent is the Magnaporthe oryzae fungus, which attacks the spike's rachis and results in deformed grains and with low specific weight, reducing crop yield.

Not long ago, reports of wheat blast in wheat were restricted to occasional epidemics in well-defined tropical areas in Brazil, Bolivia and Paraguay. However, in 2016, the disease was found in wheat plantations in Bangladesh, in South Asia, a continent with the highest world consumption of cereals, drawing attention to the global threat that wheat blast represents. It is worth mentioning that most cultivated wheat varieties are susceptible to wheat blast, and the fungicides available are inefficient when the intensity of the disease is high.

Despite not representing a risk for wheat producing countries in the Northern Hemisphere (the climate does not favor the survival of the wheat blast fungus in current conditions, without considering climate changes and possible fungal mutations) yet, the main cereal research centers are attentive to the spread of the disease in the world, which can compromise food security, especially in poor countries in Asia and Africa.