Viruses that infect plants share similarities with viruses that infect humans.

For example, plant viruses can spread quickly and symptoms do not always reveal themselves right away, making early detection difficult.

For growers, both on the farm and at your local nursery, the consequences of these viruses can be widespread and costly.

A Pullman company called NuPhy Plants that was born from Washington State University research is hoping to give growers and nurseries an advantage in the fight against viruses.

Scientists at NuPhy Plants have found a way to test thousands of plant samples for viruses quickly and at a relatively low cost.

“That really gives growers and nurseries peace of mind that everything’s clean, or if it’s not, they can proactively get rid of it before it becomes a really big problem,” said Seanna Hewitt, a scientist at NuPhy Plants.

NuPhy will be able to ramp up its virus detection testing this year thanks to a recent $100,000 grant from the USDA’s Small Business Innovation Research program.

Amit Dhingra, president of NuPhY Plants, said NuPhy can process as much as 30,000 samples a week.

“We can go and screen a whole field and tell proactively to the farmer, ‘these trees are infected and remove them now,’ rather than when they become so infected they start spreading the disease,” he said.

Hewitt said other testing options only allow growers to test a small number of samples for a small number of viruses at a time. She said NuPhy can test for all viruses.

“Not only are we testing for the ones that are most impactful now but when we screen their crops, we can guarantee that they’re completely virus-free if nothing shows up,” she said.

Viruses can be spread by insects or if someone neglects to clean their shears after unknowingly pruning an infected plant.

Dhingra said that once a plant is infected, the only option is to remove it and burn it.

As an example of how much damage a virus can cause, Dhingra said hops farmers could see 50 percent of their yield reduced in one year because of a virus. His team has also heard estimates that half of Washington’s cherry trees have been damaged by a virus.

“So imagine a scenario where our innovation existed prior to this happening,” he said. “At the first suspicion something’s going wrong, you could go out there and just do preemptive testing at a cheap cost.”

NuPhy will ship a kit to growers that will allow them to package their samples and ship them back to NuPhy for testing.

Dhingra said he believes NuPhy is the only company that is providing this method of testing. In addition to virus testing, NuPhy already grows disease-free, virus free and genetically true to type plant material for farmers.

Dhingra’s research as a professor in WSU’s Department of Horticulture has fueled these innovations. Hewitt graduated from his genomics program in 2019.

Dhingra said WSU’s mission to take the research from its laboratories and apply in the world allowed him the freedom to create this company.

“Because we have this conduit of a startup for our company, now we can bring this to the market very quickly,” he said.

Kuipers can be reached at akuipers@dnews.com.

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