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Portable device for fast detection of plant stress

Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology researchers have designed a portable optical sensor that allows rapid monitoring of plant stress – a new tool to help farmers and plant scientists with early diagnosis and real-time plant health monitoring in field conditions.

Researchers from the Disruptive & Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) Interdisciplinary Research Group (IRG) of Singapore-MIT Alliance for Research and Technology (SMART), MIT’s research enterprise in Singapore and Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL) have designed a portable optical sensor that can monitor whether a plant is under stress.

Early diagnosis of nitrogen deficiency

SMART’s new portable Raman leaf-clip sensor could be a useful tool in precision agriculture allowing early diagnosis of nitrogen deficiency in plants, which can be linked to premature leaf deterioration and loss of yield.

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According to SMART researchers, early diagnosis of nitrogen deficiency in living plants is possible with their portable sensor. - Photo: SMART
According to SMART researchers, early diagnosis of nitrogen deficiency in living plants is possible with their portable sensor. - Photo: SMART

“Our findings showed that in vivo measurements using the portable leaf-clip Raman sensor under full-light growth conditions were consistent with measurements obtained with a benchtop Raman spectrometer on leaf-sections under laboratory conditions,” says MIT Professor Rajeev Ram, co-Lead author of the paper and Principal Investigator at DiSTAP.

“We demonstrated that early diagnosis of nitrogen deficiency – a critical nutrient and the most important component of fertilisers – in living plants is possible with the portable sensor.”

Field use by farmers

While the study mainly looked at measuring nitrogen levels in plants, the device can also be used to detect levels of other plant stress phenotypes such as drought, heat and cold stress, saline stress, and light stress. The wide range of plant stressors that can be detected by these leaf-clip Raman probes and their simplicity and speed could make them ideal for field use by farmers to ensure crop health.

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Portable leaf-clip Raman sensor being used at Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory to detect nutrient stress in leafy vegetable. - Photo: SMART
Portable leaf-clip Raman sensor being used at Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory to detect nutrient stress in leafy vegetable. - Photo: SMART

“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,” says Dr. Chung Hao Huang, co-first author of the paper and Postdoctoral Fellow at TLL.

Aid farmers to maximise crop yield

The team believes their findings can aid farmers to maximise crop yield, while ensuring minimal negative impacts on the environment, including minimising pollution of aquatic ecosystems by reducing nitrogen runoff and infiltration into the water table.

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