“Glowing” Plants: Scouting Tool of the Future?

Since the beginning of agriculture farmers relied on their intuition and observation in assessing crop and field conditions to gain successful yields. Development of computer systems and internet pioneered introduction of new devices and sensors allowing better monitoring of plant and field conditions, leading to optimization of agricultural practices and production. Yet, existing monitoring systems and methods are still cumbersome, imprecise and require expensive equipment. More importantly, today’s monitoring methods typically measure indirect parameters, which are not necessarily well-correlated with the actual plant’s conditions, and many cannot be done in real time providing rather general seasonal guidelines.

A new technology of autoluminescent phytosensor plants (ALPS) opens radically new approach to agricultural monitoring. ALPS are plants capable to emit light in response to specific stress. Elements responsive to a particular type of stress – for example pest infestation – are engineered within plant’s DNA and stay silent until stress condition takes place. When stress response is triggered, ALPS start to emit light which can be detected by a simple photosensor or even by a naked eye.

A number of attempts have been made in the past to generate plants with biosensing capabilities. For instance, plants have been engineered to contain green fluorescent protein (GFP), which would accumulate in plant tissues under stress or another condition. To detect GFP build up plants have to be illuminated with a UV light but very low GFP accumulation levels, hardly detectable with advanced lab equipment, rendered this approach impractical for field applications.

In case of ALPS, the plants emit visible light which can be readily detected by a simple photosensor and potentially even naked human eye. Moreover, no special treatment of plants, such as chemicals or UV light is needed. The “stress alarm system” is genetically integrated into plant’s DNA, contained in every plant seed and its progeny, and is fully self-sustainable. Stress-induced glow of the ALPS can be detected using variety of platforms, including plant proximity or machinery mounted sensors, or potentially airborne or satellite/GPS integrated equipment. Sensor signals can be communicated to farmer’s computer systems, or a mobile device, alerting of potential issues in real time. 

How ALPS can be helpful to farmers? Row crops, for instance, can benefit from “early alarm system” for fungal, nematode or other infestation. Pesticides are expensive, putting farmers in a dilemma: on the one hand, preventive treatment may stop future pest damage, but if no infestation occurs significant costs invested in pesticide will go in vain. On the other hand, if no preventive treatment is done and infestation is not caught in time, the crop can be lost. With nematode and certain other pests it can be the case by the time damage is discovered. ALPS can provide an early alert – within days or even hours from disease emergence – and allow for timely and highly local application of pesticide for successful treatment, significantly reducing pesticide use and thus cutting costs and benefitting the environment. Use of ALPS appears to be even more promising in high value crops, such as fruits and vegetables. These plants are treated throughout the growth season and ALPS responsive to drought or nutrient deficiency can allow costs reduction in irrigation and fertilizer use.

There are prospective applications for ALPS in environmental protection as well. For instance, ALPS can be engineered to emit light in response to heavy metals or other environmental pollutants, offering a simple and inexpensive way to monitor soil and ground water contamination.

Finally, ALPS have the potential to revolutionize field of plant phenomics research. With recent improvements in whole genome sequencing large amount of DNA sequences of corn and other major crops become available. However, our today’s abilities to connect between specifics of plant genome and the resulting plant phenotype are extremely limited. Most of today’s phenomics data is produced in a greenhouse or laboratory conditions, which are not necessarily translate to similar results in the field.

Straightforward and low cost photosensor-based monitoring of ALPS will allow to moving phenomics research into the field and screen large number of plants simultaneously. High-throughput field phenomics projects can produce highly meaningful results, directly applicable to commercial product development. Moreover, the non-destructive monitoring methods will allow close follow up of specific traits, internal plant processes and gene expression patterns in real-time through the lifetime of a plant.

Autoluminescent phytosensors is a well-timed technical advance for the newly developing field of precision agriculture, bringing the promise of improving agricultural productivity and management, cutting costs of farm production and benefitting the environment.

For more information visit www.bioglowtech.com.

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