Despite the progress made in increasing food production, half of all the food harvested in the world is lost due to rotting caused by microorganisms. Plants emit various volatile organic compounds into the environment, which can be monitored to detect hidden diseases in potatoes and prevent food loss.

A new study, led by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HU) and the Israel Agricultural Research Organization (Volcani Institute), details the success of a biological sensor in early detection of hidden diseases in potatoes; potatoes are one of Israel’s main export industries, estimated at 700,000 tons per year.

Israeli farmers import European potatoes to plant in Israel. However, a certain percentage of them carry diseases inside, either visible or invisible, which cause rotting and significantly reduce the quality of the potato, writes

The sensor that lights up when it finds hidden diseases in potatoes

The Hebrew University-Volcani Alliance is about to change that. They have developed a sensor that detects disease and can be used to prevent the growth and spread of rot.

their study, published in the magazine Talent, was carried out by Dr. Dorin Harpaz and PhD student Boris Veltman, at HU’s Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, under the guidance of Dr. Evgeni Eltzov, from the Volcano Institute. The team collaborated with Dr. Sarit Melamed, from the Volcano Institute, and Dr. Zipora Tietel, as well as Dr. Leah Tsror, from the Gilat Research Center.

The sensor is based on bioengineering and smart optics. When the sensor is exposed to an infected potato, a bacterial compound inside lights up, the strength of the luminescence indicating the concentration and composition of the rot.

“The intensity of the light emitted by the bacteria panel makes it possible to quickly and quantifiably analyze the characteristics of the disease, which the sensor can ‘smell’, before the appearance of visible symptoms,” explained Eltzov.

The sensor will be useful beyond potatoes

“The biosensor we developed will help identify diseased potatoes that do not yet have external indications to keep them away from healthy tubers, thus preventing the rot from developing or spreading to other healthy plants,” added Harpaz.

To make the bacteria panel, the team created a composite of four genetically engineered bacteria that measure biological toxicity. In this study, the biological sensor detected the disease before there was any visible trace and caused the optical sensor to glow twice as brightly as sensors in uninfected potatoes.

The sensors’ capabilities were also demonstrated in a previous study that used them to detect toxicity from artificial sweeteners used in sports supplements.

The discovery could lead to a reduction in food waste

According to the researchers, early detection of the disease, before the tubers are exported to foreign markets or replanted, gives food producers a significant advantage.

“The biosensor can be used to quickly and economically identify hidden rot in potatoes, facilitate better post-harvest management and reduce food waste, which is especially important given the current global food crisis,” Harpaz concluded.

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