PhD student Karolina Pusz-Bochenska calls molecular diagnostics her “passion” as a scientist, and said she’s thrilled to see her work move from the lab into the field.
USask student Karolina Pusz-Bochenska is currently working on finishing a PhD in biology. (Photo: Submitted)

USask-developed crop diagnostic tool gaining widespread use

As Karolina Pusz-Bochenska finishes her PhD in biology at the University of Saskatchewan (USask), the revolutionary crop diagnostic tool she helped develop is already evolving for commercial use.

By Matt Olson

By utilizing molecular testing techniques, Pusz-Bochenska and a USask research team – with the support of Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) – created a cutting-edge tool that is already finding its way into research laboratories and the hands of farmers across the country.

“It’s very satisfying. The best part of my research is when I can harvest my creativity and create something that can later serve people,” she said. “The impact is very important to me.”

Pusz-Bochenska and the research team’s work revolves around the detection of aster yellows, a crop disease that can devastate wheat, barley, and canola yields.

Before the new testing method, diagnosing aster yellows in the field could take days or weeks. Aster yellows is transmitted via leafhopper insects, so the method developed by Pusz-Bochenska and the research team involves the molecular testing of insects and plant tissue in the field to immediately determine if they carry the disease.

Pusz-Bochenska noted the aster yellows testing method has been purchased by three companies, including a lab that works with the Ministry of Agriculture in Quebec. As she puts it, one of the highlights of this kind of work is when it gains widespread approval and use.

“Since accomplishing a PhD comes with a lot of sacrifice and you have to accept the notion of delayed gratification, this is an ultimate validation for my work’s importance and a driver for my future endeavours,” she said.

The research was initially published in Plant Health Progress in 2020. Since then, Pusz-Bochenska said the paper has been downloaded more than 10,000 times.

While the methods she and the research team developed have been used to diagnose aster yellows, she said the test could be altered for use in diagnosing other diseases in the future.

Their newest method explores what Pusz-Bochenska calls a “multilocus sequence typing method.” While this method is lab-based, it provides more detailed information about which strain of the disease farmers or agricultural specialists are dealing with. Uncovering the genetic secrets of the aster yellows bacteria contributes to the development of better monitoring and control strategies for the disease.

Pusz-Bochenska called molecular diagnostics her “passion” as a scientist, and said she’s thrilled to see her work move from the lab into the field.

“So often, innovative discoveries go unnoticed because they do not make it beyond the academic realm,” Pusz-Bochenska said. “I hope that my story will inspire more scientists to be bold about their research.”

Pusz-Bochenska credited the researchers – both mentors and colleagues – that she has worked with at USask for their work on this project. Her graduate supervisors are Dr. Tyler Wist (PhD) with AAFC and Dr. Jack Gray (PhD) with USask’s Biology Department in the College of Arts and Science. As she looks ahead to finishing her PhD, Pusz-Bochenska lauded the faculty at USask for the experience she has had so far.

“My experience at USask is not just in the lab, and experiments and classes,” she said. “I always felt like I was part of USask in a broader sense. I’ve met amazing people here.”

Together, we will undertake the research the world needs. We invite you to join by supporting critical research at USask.