Science and social media to improve pest diagnosis

Photo of man looking into microscope

Graincorp technical officer Kieran McGee uses a molecular microscope to help identify stored grain insects.

PHOTO: Gary Kong

Every day, people working in the agricultural sector need to identify plant pests to make decisions about how to manage any infestations.

Many pests are difficult to identify and those who find them are often a long way from the specialists who can help with identification.

The longer it takes to identify a pest the more damage it is likely to cause. In the case of exotic and regulated plant pests, delays in identification can affect the ability to eradicate or contain the pest.

Recognising this need for systems that can facilitate easier and quicker diagnostics, plant pathologist and researcher Dr Gary Kong and his team have worked with Melbourne Made Apps Pty Ltd to develop Pestpoint for the web and mobile devices.

An initiative of the Plant Biosecurity Cooperative Research Centre, Pestpoint has been developed with knowledge of the growing role digital systems can play in helping to manage agricultural pests and safeguard food industries.

Pestpoint ( harnesses the power of social media for pest identification. It provides a web-space where an online community can create networks in which members collaborate with each other to identify damaging plant pests.

By using mobile devices to share pest images and other field information, people draw on the collective knowledge of their networks to identify pests. Pestpoint documents this process and saves pest records in a searchable database.

Each Pestpoint network can call on specialists to help identify unusual specimens with just the click of a mouse or touch of a screen. These specialists can be anywhere in the world.

Dr Kong identifies three stages in the diagnostic process. The first is through the virtual environment of Pestpoint, which uses photos and a description of symptoms to remotely identify the pests. This can include the use of small handheld microscopes and mobile devices that can be used in field situations.

The next level is remote microscopic diagnostics, which requires strategically placed microscopes that can be used to examine specimens in more detail and allow non-specialists to share the pest specimen in real time over the internet with specialists, who assist in the identification. The third level is when the diagnosis can only be made by sending a sample to an expert.

The Pestpoint software is being piloted by GrainCorp and some Landmark agronomists to identify any further changes required before it is opened to the wider community.

GrainCorp grain protection manager Robin Reid says the technology allows GrainCorp staff to obtain a stored-grain pest identification more quickly for unknown insects.

Pestpoint then stores the data so that pest occurrences can be mapped over time and locations.

“Meeting the quality requirements of both domestic and export customers is important to GrainCorp,” he says.

“Whether it is the intake of grain at a country depot or loading a ship bound for export, we can’t afford to make mistakes or to hold up the system while a diagnosis is made. Pestpoint allows us to connect our staff with each other and then connect them with experts in the Department of Agriculture stored-grains team when we require a more in-depth identification.

“In the Toowoomba, Queensland, laboratory we have a remote microscope that allows us to share live images of suspect pests with experts almost anywhere. We have now set up several networks among our staff for them to use each others’ skills and communicate what they are finding,” Mr Reid says.

“The ability of Pestpoint to keep accurate records will allow us to keep track of pest outbreaks at all our locations and to relate these to management strategies.”


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