Scientists devise biosensor to tackle cocoa disease and protect farmers' livelihoods

Media Relations Team, 31 March 2021

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Scientists from UWE Bristol have devised a biosensor which tackles cocoa disease and aims to revitalize West Africa’s endangered cocoa industry.

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

Dr. Joel Allainguillaume, Associate Professor in Conservation Science, and Dr. Jackie Barnett, Senior Research Fellow in the Health and Applied Science Department, in collaboration with colleagues in the Institute of Bio-Sensing Technology, are developing an innovative handheld device which will identify 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.

Dr. Allainguillaume said: “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.

“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.”

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.

The team are developing an optical biosensor that will 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,” says Barnett. “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.

Allainguillaume, Barnett and their team are collaborating with Mars Wrigley on this project, as they work towards a shared goal of tackling the prevalence of CSSV and enhancing cocoa production in the region.

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