We are proud to announce our winner, honorable mentions, and finalists!

Continue reading below to learn about the outcomes of the ‘Ōhi’a Challenge and learn more about the solvers here.

The Global Fight to Save Hawai’i’s Forests

By Willy Blackmore

Growing from the edge of the Pacific all the way up to the treeline above 8,000 feet, the ‘ōhi’a tree is unique to the Hawaiian Islands. The tree, a keystone species in Hawaii’s forests, is now threatened by an outside invader: the non-native TK beetle that is believed to carry two types of Ceratocystis fungi that causes Rapid ‘Ōhi’a Death, which has killed large swaths of forests on the Big Island. The fungi is so destructive that their scientific names mean "changes the natural state of 'ōhi'a" and "destroyer of 'ōhi'a." But while ROD is the latest—and possibly the most destructive—environmental problem caused by the onslaught of invasive species that colonization and globalization have introduced to Hawaii’s delicate ecosystems, the global scientific community is now working to combat the crisis. 

The latest sign of this multidisciplinary, geographically diverse effort to confront ROD is the ‘Ōhi’a Challenge, a $70,000 prize co-presented by Conservation X Labs, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Native Hawaiian Relations, and the National Park Service. Infected trees do not present symptoms before they are nearly dead so identifying the disease has proven to be a challenge. The prize is geared toward developing new approaches to early detection of ROD. The competition garnered 60 submissions from across the world, including entrants from Ethiopia and the European Union, and a cohort of 11 finalists were selected by a panel of judges that included a group of technical experts and a group of ‘ōhi’a experts.

“It's inspiring to see the scientific community—not just in Hawai'i but also around the world—rally for this cause,” said Miguel Castrence, a finalist who is based on the Big Island, which is ground zero for ROD. 

The finalists represented three broad approaches to detecting ROD: landscape-scale detection using drone surveillance and machine learning, individual tree detection based on identifying chemical signatures in asymptomatic trees, and using dogs to sniff out the fungus or the beetles that carry it. After narrowing the group down to ten finalists, the prize was awarded to Ryan Perroy of the University of Hawaii at Hilo. Perroy’s team, which runs out of the school’s Spatial Data Analysis and Visualization lab, will use datasets including TKIMAGES, thermal, multispectral, and hyperspectral images that will be analyzed using machine learning, as well as a drone developed by ETH Zurich that can gather canopy samples from trees believed to be infected.  

Being able to identify possible infections across thousands of acres of forest is very important for a disease that has killed off large swaths of trees. “Scientists and managers on the ground need reliable and timely information about forest conditions in order to better understand and respond to this threat to our native ecosystems, and that information needs to be at a spatial scale that is helpful,” Perroy said. “In the case of detecting new outbreaks, both here and on other islands, having access to current and repeat landscape-level monitoring data is one of the key ways we can potentially get a jump on containing the disease in areas where active management makes sense.” 

While the competition is over, the effort to combat ROD, for which there is currently no means of curing, is on-going—as are efforts to combat similar diseases around the world caused by other fungi, such as Sudden Oak Death, which is killing native oak species in California and Oregon. The kind of innovative ideas displayed in the finalists’ projects, a few of which CXL will continue to work with, represent the future of the field. 

A number of the finalists who are not based in Hawaii submitted ideas that have already been used in other, similar cases, and were drawn to the ‘Ōhi’a Challenge through both a desire to help and to compete. The challenge-grant model of the competition is very effective, according to finalist Enrico Bonello of Ohio State University, who has been using molecular tools for early detection of plant pathogens in other settings, as well as spectroscopic tools for tree phenotyping. “Any time you are asked to compete, your mental juices start flowing and you get the best ideas,” he said.

Finalist Elijah Sharpe is the chief operating officer of a startup called Smart Diagnostic Systems that is developing a nano-sensor platform for advance detection of fungal disease-causing agents around the world. “SDS will address the ROD problem specific to Hawaii, but we also view this problem in a much larger context,” he said. The company has developed capabilities to identify four different species of bacteria. Similarly, finalist Lauralea Oliver has been using her highly tuned means of detecting the presence of harmful pathogens in a variety of different settings. She is currently working on a project at UC Berkeley to use scent dogs to sniff out the Phytophthora fungus that causes Sudden Oak Death in commercial nurseries. In addition to Phytophthora, “we have trained the dog on five species of the fungus across a wide range of substrates with excellent results,” she said.

Any success in the fight against ‘ōhi’a in Hawaii will feed into advancement in keeping similar diseases at bay around the world, and vice-versa. As David Benitez, a National Parks Service ecologist at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, put it, “Our work also paves the way for other initiatives to remedy the harm caused by invasive species around the world.” 

A $70,000 Prize to Save Hawaii’s Forests from an Invasive Fungal Pathogen

Named after a Hawaiian legend that tells of the love and separation of the young couple ʻŌhiʻa and Lehua, the ‘Ōhiʻa tree carries immense ecological and cultural significance in Hawai’i.  Since 2014, an invasive fungal pathogen called Rapid ‘Ōhiʻa Death (ROD) has decimated Hawaiian forests.  Conservation X Labs, the U.S. Department of the Interior's Office of Native Hawaiian Relations, and the National Park Service are partnering on The ‘Ōhiʻa Challenge to identify advanced technological solutions to ROD.  The Challenge is no longer accepting applications (the due date was April 8th, 2019) but please explore our website to learn about the problem and our finalists and winners!

Have a great idea? Want to discuss your idea with a Community of Solvers?

Join the Conservation X Labs online community in the Digital Makerspace to find collaborators and share ideas. The Digital Makerspace is an online open community working toward creating tech solutions for conservation's greatest problems. Remember, you must submit your application via ohia@conservationxlabs.org to be eligible for the prize!