$1M NSF Grant Awarded to Help Better Predict Emerging Plant Disease Pandemics

A group of scientist testing out sensors for research

North Carolina State University researchers led by the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences’ William Neal Reynolds Professor Jean Ristaino have been awarded a $1 million Phase I planning grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to use real-time analytics to monitor and predict emerging plant diseases. Ristaino leads the Emerging Plant Disease and Global Food Security Cluster at NC State.

As seen with the recent COVID-19 pandemic, human diseases can threaten food security, but so can plant diseases. Especially diseases that infect major food crops like corn, wheat, potatoes and soybeans.

“We don’t have good plant disease surveillance systems in place or ways to predict the next outbreak for many plant diseases,” says Ristaino, a professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology. “We’re good at putting out the fire after it has started.”

The purpose of the project is to develop predictive analytics tools to forecast plant disease occurrence and spread. Ristaino is working with an interdisciplinary team of researchers across several colleges, including the Colleges of Engineering, Natural Resources and Sciences.

This figure represents the critical components and data analytics needed for an emerging plant disease surveillance network. Source: The Persistent Threat of Emerging Plant Disease
Pandemics to Global Food Security; PNAS

“We’re developing sensor technology that will allow us to detect disease pathogens in the field prior to symptom development.” Ristaino says they are using the late blight of a potato pathogen— that caused the Irish famine pathogen. It’s a pathogen that Ristaino has worked with for more than 30 years.

“We’re also working on wearable sensors that can be left on a plant to monitor its health status. Sort of like a glucose monitor,” Ristaino explains. The monitors will inform researchers whether the plant is water stressed or infected with a pathogen. Additionally, molecular sensors will allow researchers to determine what pathogen has infected the plant and then DNA analytic tools can determine if it’s new or something that has been reported previously.

The team is also developing sensor apps to collect data from the field that can streamline input into a “big data” database called the Plant Aid Database. Ristaino says this project is a direct offshoot of the team’s GRIP4PSI Project that was previously funded by the provost’s office. In the NSF work, we will expand the toolkit for early disease predictors that are useful for forecasting outbreaks.

As part of the project, the team will lead a threat scenario workshop, where breakout groups will be asked to manage a hypothetical outbreak using current methods but also learn how to  manage outbreaks differently with new technologies. We will also consider the social drivers of technology adoption.

“This grant will put NC State on the map in the area of infectious disease modeling,” Ristaino says. “We have a fast turn around of 18 months to integrate data streams and come up with components for a Pandemic Preparedness Center.” The team would also like to compete for Phase II funding which could be up toward $25 million. We’d like to frame the proposal in a larger “One Health” framework considering animal and plant diseases to leverage NCSU’s strengths in that area as well. 

Co-Principal Investors on the project include Ignazio Carbone from the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, Jason Delborne, College of Natural Resources, Qingshan Wei, College of Engineering and Chris Jones, Center of Geospatial Analytics.

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.