MONITORING TREE HEALTH
Final Year Project, 2020
British woodland biodiversity is increasingly under threat from a range of pests and diseases, which are resulting in landscape level changes that have huge economic and environmental implications. At least 20 diseases are attacking trees native to the UK and 6 of those diseases have reached epidemic levels. 11 more diseases have been identified as a potential risk resulting from global trade and climate change.
In response to this, I designed an agar spore trap that can be used to culture mould spores for identifying fungal diseases.
Research & Insights
Research was really key to this project. Primary research with a range of stakeholders, from tree surgeons to scientists, generated a number of key insights whilst secondary research was used to identify technology and scientific methods for the early detection of pathogens.
Interviewing Citizen Scientists
Based on the research, the most engaging and low cost option seemed to be to use an agar based spore trap. Similar systems are already used for identifying crop diseases and the physicality of collecting the spores makes the concept of plant health threats tangible. I went through a number of design iterations and prototypes trying to develop a spore trap that would hold a petri dish in a tree, free from contamination for passive sampling.
Initially I was very focused on maximising air flow and making something more technical. Development then became more focused around making something eye catching and engaging to use to draw attention to tree health. Ultimately the responses developed were expensive and resource intensive though which defeats the projects sustainability ambitions. Testing indicated that mould would still grow on the petri dishes even without a casing and it was more of a priority to make the traps accessible and affordable. Having taken this into account, I moved on to thinking of ways the petri dishes could be mounted in trees whilst minimising contamination risk from the users.
Participants can sign up online to receive a spore sampling kit which is assembled at home. They pop the lid off and hang it in a tree for 2 hours, making sure to record the species of tree.
The agar plates are then sealed with tape and sent back to labs to identify if any diseases are present. Photos and results would be shared online so participants get to see a tangible output from their work. As a result of the closed loop system, components of the kit can also be sterilised and sent back out for reuse where possible.
The information can be then used to plot the spread of tree diseases, guide tree planting initiatives and inform woodland management strategies.