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Monday, September 3, 2012 - 8:00am

Researchers Developing Pest, Disease Plant Sensors

Imagine crops alerting farmers to the beginnings of a fungal infection. Or fruits and vegetables warning they’re beginning to spoil while they await distribution.

Sensors under development at UGA will pick up on chemicals plants release when they are in distress – like when a caterpillar is eating leaves or a fungus is growing on them – and alert farmers to the problem before it becomes widespread. The plant chemicals are very specific to the type of problem, like a pest infestation or a disease.

Scientists have identified the compounds and what they mean. Now College of Engineering professor Ramaraja Ramasamy and his colleagues are working on the early warning sensor.

“The idea is to have them deployed to create a network of sensors so you will be able to monitor the local environment around the plants,” Ramasamy said. “So if you have one sensor going off, then it’s an indication that particular region is being infected.”

Then the farmer could treat just the infected plants instead of a whole field, saving money and unnecessary chemical applications. Producers spend millions each year on herbicides, fungicides and pesticides.

“The fundamental principle [of the sensor] is very similar to that of a glucose meter,” Ramasamy said. “There’s a chemical reaction between your target compound and the detection element that you have on the sensor.”

Ramasamy said he and his colleagues are working on identifying the specific compounds to put on the sensors that will react with the chemicals released by plants, thus indicating a problem.

He said they aim to build a working device within three years.

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