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NASA technology can detect plant diseases from above

A breakthrough study has shed new light on how advanced technology can be used to help mitigate plant diseases. NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, in collaboration with Cornell University, has demonstrated the possibility of identifying crop diseases before visible symptoms begin to manifest.

Focus of the study 

Globally, plant diseases destroy between 15 to 30% of harvests annually. Such diseases include withering molds, root-rotting bacteria, and viruses. Early detection of plant diseases can often mean the difference between losing an entire crop and managing to salvage it. 

The researchers used a state-of-the-art science instrument developed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory called the Airborne Visible/InfraRed Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS-NG) to detect the early signs of a grape disease that costs billions of dollars in crop damage annually.

Early detection of plant diseases

In particular, the team focused on GLRaV-3 (grapevine leafroll-associated virus complex 3), a virus spread primarily by insects. GLRaV-3 results in reduced yields and inferior quality fruit, causing an estimated $3 billion in damages and losses to the U.S. wine and grape industry every year.

Historically, detecting GLRaV-3 has required labor-intensive vine-by-vine scouting and costly molecular testing. Yet, this study aimed to discern whether the AVIRIS-NG technology could assist in early detection and from a more comprehensive perspective, by using machine learning.

“Like humans, sick plants may not exhibit outward symptoms right away, making early detection the greatest challenge facing growers,” said study senior author Dr. Katie Gold, assistant professor at Cornell University. This is particularly true for the grapevine leafroll virus, as it can take up to a year before a vine exhibits visible signs of infection.

Results of the study

The team tested the capability of the AVIRIS-NG instrument while it was installed on a research plane flying over roughly 11,000 acres of vineyards in Lodi, California, a prime grape-producing region. The data gathered was then fed into computer models designed to distinguish infection.

The researchers’ findings were impressive; they managed to distinguish between infected and non-infected vines with an 87% accuracy rate, both before and after visible symptoms appeared.

“Without the hard work of the growers, industry collaborators, and the scouting teams, none of what we accomplished would have been possible,” said Dr. Gold.

Implications of the study 

The researchers also showcased how the evolving capabilities in air and space technology can augment ground-based pathogen surveillance efforts. They referred to upcoming missions like NASA’s Surface Biology and Geology (SBG) that could provide data crucial for agriculture at the global scale, supporting data-driven and sustainable farming practices.

Fernando Romero Galvan, a doctoral candidate and lead author of the study, emphasized the importance of sustainable farming practices in the face of climate change and expressed his enthusiasm for the future of remote sensing and plant disease detection.

Study co-author Ryan Pavlick, a research technologist at JPL, highlighted the broader vision of this research. “The ultimate vision that we have is being able to do this across the planet for many crop diseases and for growers all over the world.”

More about plant diseases 

Plant diseases represent one of the significant challenges in agriculture and horticulture, leading to considerable economic losses and threatening food security. These diseases can be caused by a variety of pathogens, including fungi, bacteria, viruses, nematodes, and even parasitic plants. Here’s an overview of some prevalent types of plant diseases.

Fungal diseases

Fungi are one of the most common causes of plant diseases. They reproduce through spores, which can spread quickly and over large distances, often carried by wind or water. Fungal diseases can affect all parts of a plant, from roots and stems to leaves and fruits. Examples include powdery mildew, rusts, and blights.

Bacterial diseases

Bacteria can enter plants through natural openings or wounds and cause diseases such as bacterial leaf spot, crown gall, and bacterial wilt. The bacteria multiply within the plant’s tissues, blocking the transport of water and nutrients, and leading to wilting and death of the plant.

Viral diseases

Viruses are much smaller than bacteria or fungi and are often spread by insects, mites, or nematodes, which act as vectors transmitting the virus from plant to plant. Infected plants may show a variety of symptoms, including yellowing, stunted growth, malformed leaves, or loss of yield. Examples of viral diseases include mosaic diseases, leaf roll, and ringspot.

Nematode diseases

Nematodes are microscopic, worm-like organisms that feed on plant roots, causing damage and providing an entryway for other pathogens. Infected plants often show symptoms like wilting, stunting, and yellowing, particularly if the nematodes carry viruses or bacteria. An example is the root-knot nematode.

Parasitic plant diseases

Some plants can also act as parasites on other plants. They usually attach themselves to the host plant’s roots or stems and absorb nutrients, often to the detriment of the host. The most famous example is probably mistletoe.

Managing plant diseases involves a combination of strategies, including cultural practices like crop rotation and sanitation, biological controls such as beneficial insects or organisms, chemical controls like fungicides and bactericides, and breeding plants for disease resistance. 

With the advent of technology, as demonstrated in the study, new tools are being developed to detect and manage plant diseases more effectively, helping to safeguard our crops and food supply.


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