A team of international researchers in Malaysia is developing a portable biosensor to detect and ultimately help prevent the spread of the most devastating disease that infects oil palm trees.

Image: Universiti Putra Malaysia

The proposed biosensor is designed to identify the fungus Ganoderma boninense, which is considered the major cause of basal stem rot and upper stem rot disease.

“Fungi that rot and eventually kill oil palm trees may be costing some South-East Asian countries US$500 million a year,” report the researchers in a review paper published in SpringerPlus.

One of the world’s main sources of edible oil, the oil palm is also a significant precursor of biodiesel fuel.

“Oil palm trees start bearing fruit after 30 months of planting and are productive for 20 to 30 years,” state the authors. “They are the most efficient oil-bearing crop in the world.”

 

To help sustain the economic benefits of the palm oil industry, the team, led by Professor Nor Azah Yusof of Universiti Putra Malaysia, hopes to control fungal rot through early detection of the G. boninense fungus. “Once young palms show symptoms of the disease they usually die within one or two years, while mature trees can survive for only three or so years,” the researchers explain.

A tree that is 50% infected is already useless, says Professor Yusof. But if caught early enough, this fungal infection can be controlled using a number of methods including chemical treatments and sanitation measures designed to prevent uninfected trees from contacting the roots of infected trees.

So far, the researchers have shown that their G. boninense biosensor functions at a laboratory scale. “Our next step is to develop a portable device for the sensor system,” says Professor Yusof. “We plan to use an imaging technique, with which we can develop a smartphone app for detecting this fungus.”

 

 

For further information contact:
Professor Nor Azah Yusof
Institute of Advanced Technology
Universiti Putra Malaysia
Email: azah@science.upm.edu.my