University researchers develop tree disease detection device

Researchers hope the device will make oak wilt detection cheaper and faster.

Katrina Pross

A new device developed by University of Minnesota researchers will make it easier for experts to identify a deadly tree disease.

Researchers are working on a handheld device that uses nanotechnology to test for oak wilt, a disease threatening Minnesota forests. They hope to have the product on the market in a year.

A team headed by University bioproducts and biosystems engineering assistant professor Abdennour Abbas has been working on the device for three years. 

“This device is important because of the damages that oak wilt causes to resources. Oak is an ecological habitat for many animals, but it is also an industrial resource as oak wood is used for fire and furniture,” Abbas said.

The final product will combine three technologies developed by the researchers: one to extract the fungus from wood chips, one to extract DNA and one to analyze the DNA. Using nanotechnology and gold, a signal appears on the handheld reader if oak wilt fungus is present. 

Testing for oak wilt with the device will take as little as 30 minutes and cost about $5 per sample, according to a University press release.

“Our ultimate goal is to bring the device to market, which is what we are trying to do right now,” Abbas said, adding that his team has already received requests from other states to purchase the device.

Abbas and his team hope their invention will change the future of oak wilt detection, which can be a costly and time-consuming process.

“Oak wilt is the most important disease of hardwood trees in the state, and it is spreading. People need to be aware of it because when it shows up it can kill trees very quickly,” said Robert Venette, director of the Minnesota Invasive Terrestrial Plants and Pests Center.

Oak wilt — which kills most of the trees it infects — is caused by a non-native fungus that invades the roots of the trees, said Minnesota Department of Natural Resources Forest Health Specialist Brian Schwingle.

It spreads when roots of oak trees of the same species connect, he said. This is a problem in Minnesota, since the state lacks oak tree diversity. More than 266,000 oak trees became infected between 2007 and 2016.

The removal of dead trees is expensive and can cost the state millions of dollars, Schwingle said.