Last Friday marked a milestone for me, as on that day twenty years ago, I walked through the doors of MAFF Central Science Laboratory (CSL) in Harpenden, to start my new job as a plant virology diagnostician. Plenty has changed since then: MAFF has become Defra, CSL has become Fera Science Ltd and the Harpenden site is now a set of executive homes. I’ve also gone from being a hands-on, bench scientist to Director of Science and head of profession for 350 other scientists.
Yet while much has changed, much has not. For example, we are still working with our colleagues in Defra and APHA to help protect the UK from alien pests and pathogens. Back in 1996, we were in the midst of a campaign to control rhizomania, a major viral disease of sugar beet. Over the decades, the diseases have changed – potato ring rot, Phytophthora ramorum and ash dieback to name a few – but the threat to our crops and the wider natural environment remains. An essential part of this ongoing fight has been the need for accurate, robust and rapid diagnostics, and Fera has been at the forefront of developing just such methods. Back in the day, I was recruited as a molecular diagnostician to develop DNA-based methods for routine use in the lab. At the time we were using polymerase chain reaction (PCR) to diagnose just a handful of diseases which were caused by ‘hard to identify’ pathogens. Twenty years on and DNA testing has become ubiquitous.
Previously the preserve of expert molecular biologists, through Defra-funded research, we are now putting portable DNA technology into the hands of plant health inspectors based at Heathrow Airport. Next generation sequencing allows us to sequence whole pathogen genomes in days, where previously it took months, and with the development of technology like the Minion, from UK-based Oxford Nanopore Technology, it is becoming portable too. Of course, molecular diagnostics aren’t just useful in plant pathology; they have a whole raft of applications across agriculture and the environment. So for example, Fera has been using its DNA expertise to help push forward the use of environmental or eDNA. From the detection of great crested newts in planning applications to the identification of diatoms for water quality assessment, DNA is changing the way we do environmental monitoring. Our recently published Science Strategy presents how we see this area developing in the future. It’s hard to say exactly how things will look in 2036 but it is safe to say that innovative genomic technologies will be at the core of how we protect both the agri-food supply chain and the environment.