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Early Detection of Hidden Diseases in Potato Tubers Using a Biological Sensor

Despite progress in improved food production, half of all harvested food in the world is lost due to rot caused by microorganisms. Plants release several volatile organic compounds into their neighboring environment, which can be observed for early identification of plant disease and to avoid food loss.

Biosensor. Image Credit: Hebrew University

A new study headed by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) and Israel’s Agricultural Research Organization (Volcani Institute) elaborates on the biological sensor’s success in the early identification of hidden disease in potato tubers—one of the chief export industries in Israel with 700,000 tons exported annually.

Israeli farmers import European potatoes for farming in Israel. However, a particular percentage of them bring disease within—which can be both visible or invisible—causing rot and considerably reducing the quality of the potato. The alliance of Hebrew University and Volcani Institute is going to change that.

These institutes developed a sensor that identifies disease and can be employed to curb the rot from increasing and scattering. Their research was carried out by Dr Dorin Harpaz and her PhD student Boris Veltman at HU’s Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, and Dr Evgeni Eltzov of the Volcani Institute supervised the research.

It was published in Talanta. The research group teamed with the Volcani Institute’s Dr Sarit Melamed and Dr Zipora Tietel, as well as Dr Leah Tsror from the Gilat Research Center.

The sensor depends on smart optics and bioengineering. Upon exposure to the sensor, a bacterial compound within the infected potato glows up—with the luminescence strength implying the composition and concentration of the rot.

The intensity of the light given off by the bacteria panel makes it possible to quickly and quantifiably analyze the characteristics of the disease, which the sensor can ‘smell,’ before the appearance of visible symptoms. The biosensor we developed will help identify diseased potatoes that do not yet have any external indications, and keep them away from healthy tubers, thus preventing the rot from developing or spreading to other healthy plants.

Dr Dorin Harpaz, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

The research group produced a compound comprising four genetically engineered bacteria that quantify biological toxicity to form the bacteria panel. In this research, the biological sensor identified disease before any visible trace started showing up and made the optical sensor shine double as luminously as did the sensors in non-infected potatoes.

An earlier study also verified their abilities by employing sensors to detect toxicity among artificial sweeteners used in sports supplements.

As per the research, early disease detection—before the potatoes are replanted or exported to international markets—provides a key benefit to food growers.

The biological sensor can be used to quickly and economically identify hidden rot in potatoes, facilitate better post-harvest management, and reduce food wastage—particularly important given the current global food crisis.

Dr Dorin Harpaz, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Journal Reference:

Veltman, B., et al. (2022) Whole-cell bacterial biosensor for volatile detection from Pectobacterium-infected potatoes enables early identification of potato tuber soft rot disease. Talanta.


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