DNA barcoding technology identifies pest species on the go

Sampling technology and new data network creates opportunity for better pest management

It has just become easier for farmers to access rapid pest identification thanks to an innovation with roots in research at the University of Guelph.

The LifeScanner Species Identification Kit uses DNA barcoding technology to identify biological organisms like insects, food, plants or animal tissue using a sampling kit and a mobile app.

“What we’ve done with LifeScanner is simplified genetic testing for the purpose of identification of species — think of it as a Google for biological organisms,” says Biolytica Inc. founder Sujeevan Ratnasingham, who is also associate director of the Centre for Biodiversity Genomics.

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“For example, you can figure out what you need to spray and when or find out if you are seeing signs of an early infestation.”

Why it matters: Fast, early identification of pests can help farmers take action before a problem gets out of control, minimizing losses. And as the climate continues to change, new pests will appear in areas where they haven’t been seen before.

If someone finds a pest, weed or insect that they can’t identify, they can put it into one of the small tubes in the LifeScanner kit and send it to the University of Guelph laboratories using the prepaid envelope in the kit. Identification information is provided directly to the sender onto their smart device via the LifeScanner app or through a web portal within about six days.

“As the climate changes and land use shifts, we will see new invasives creeping in from the south but also with increased trade, so we see this as a way of keeping track of that for farmers,” he said. “It’s an alternative to traditional pest identification services out there that are often slow.”

A LifeScanner kit contains two or four plastic vials designed to withstand the rigours of shipping. One test costs less than $20 and it’s available at www.lifescanner.net. Inside the vials is a fluid that starts to break down the specimen’s cells, releasing the DNA — and it’s that fluid that is analyzed to make the identification.

For those seeking even more rapid confirmation, Biolytica is working on a lab-in-a-box kit that lets users carry out identification testing on-site.

Pest data is aggregated and Biolytica is working on providing a regional-scale service where users can subscribe to an early alert pest data system. It’s something Ratnasingham sees as ideal for a co-op or a commodity organization to offer for its members, combining a data subscription with sampling kits for pest monitoring. In fact, his company is looking for partners to help bring the technology to the farming sector.

“This will help us identify the shift northward of pests. Having the data early is key — you want to see the first incidence (of a pest) not after it’s taken over,” he says. “Even if we prevent one infection, that is a huge savings. We’re ready to go if someone is interested.”

They’ve already launched a similar service in the realm of food testing. Much of the technology’s early successes have come from identifying food fraud, particularly in the seafood industry.

LifeScanner won top prize at the first annual Gryphon’s LAAIR innovation pitch competition earlier this spring around its capacities to help consumers identify what they’re eating.

“I was in the room with the judges … and what stood out about LifeScanner to them was that it provides consumers and those along the supply chain assurance in the source of the food and ingredients,” says Dana McCauley, associate director, New Venture Creation in the Research Innovation Office. “LifeScanner has potential to move beyond the food supply chain verification space.”

Work is underway as well to integrate LifeScanner with a blockchain to allow for validation of the data within that block chain.

“You have to deal with the unknown because the landscape is changing,” Ratnasingham says.

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