Researchers develop portable device that detects plant stress

A team of researchers have developed a new portable device that can be used to promptly detect if a plant is under stress or not before any visible symptoms or even possible yield loss.

The researchers, from the Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART) and the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL), collaborated on the project with a local company, TechnoSpex. They produced the portable optical sensor in late 2020.

With the new device, called Raman leaf-clip sensor, farmers, as well as plant scientists, can quickly diagnose and monitor the nutritional status of plants to boost crop yields and reduce negative impacts on the environment.

Most times, farmers depend on visual observation to detect plant stress. This approach causes a delay in obtaining plant information with the risk of the farmer taking flawed decision due to inaccurate observations.

Precision agriculture is based on the use of data-based technologies to assess the real needs of crops in order to promote sustainable farming practices.

SMART’s new device is a tool of precision agriculture that allows for rapid detection of nitrogen deficiency and other factors that could lead to plant stress.

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Plant stress is usually caused by nutrient deficiency, disease infection or water deficit.

One of the researchers, Rajeev Ram, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, said: “We demonstrated that early diagnosis of nitrogen deficiency — a critical nutrient and the most important component of fertilizers — in living plants is possible with the portable sensor.”

The study, published in Journal Scientific Reports, explained how the optical sensor could observe the chemical compositions of plants and give real-time information about the stress state of plants

Although the study focused on measuring the levels of nitrogen in plants, the device can also be used to detect other levels of chemical reactions such as drought, saline and light stress.

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Chung Hao Huang, a co-first author of the paper and a post-doctorate candidate at TLL, explained the process.

“While we have focused on the early and specific diagnosis of nitrogen deficiency using the leaf-clip sensor, we were able to measure peaks from other metabolites that are also clearly observed in popular vegetables such as kailan, lettuce, choy sum, pak choi, and spinach,” Haung explained.

The research group expects that the new device will help farmers to maximize crop yield and ensure minimal negative impacts on the environment.

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