Food security and sustainable agriculture, backed by promising non-destructive sensors

Researchers from the Interdisciplinary Research Group (IRG) on Destructive and Sustainable Agricultural Precision Technologies (DiSTAP) of the Singapore-MIT Research and Technology Alliance (SMART), the MIT research firm in Singapore, and their local collaborators from the Materials Research Institute and Engineering (IMRE), the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A * STAR), and the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (ChBE), the National University of Singapore (NUS) have published a review discussing recent advances in non-destructive monitoring of plant health, ranging from electrochemical-based to nanosensors and electronic noses, and why plant health monitoring is an attractive and sustainable strategy that can be used to optimize crop growth practices. The review aims to inspire future developments in non-destructive technologies for plant health diagnostics.

To meet the urgent need for global food security and pave the way for sustainable agriculture, progress and the adoption of agricultural technologies are crucial to alleviating the conditions of 193 million people around the world who are experiencing acute food insecurity. However, sustainable practices need to be applied to minimize environmental destruction when yields and productivity are improved. Traditionally, farmers will often be able to notice signs of deterioration in the health of their crops only at a stage when reparative measures are limited.

In addition, ongoing testing by analytical techniques based on chromatography is destructive, as it requires the killing of leaf samples that would cause injury and tissue destruction. These methods are also time consuming, including laboratory extraction and processing of multiple plant samples for each data point. In this way, scientists are advancing in the field of precision agriculture, developing new sensors and analytical tools to help farmers manage farm management decisions. The use of non-destructive or minimally invasive sensors for plant metabolites has emerged as a key analytical tool for real-time monitoring of plant signaling pathways and plant responses to external conditions that demonstrate overall plant health. These sensors could be incorporated into future farming practices and applied to high-tech urban farms that use precise, predictable and environmentally controlled agriculture.

“In light of the growing demand for food due to the growing global population and concerns for food security, the development of innovative and sustainable technologies and tools to improve crop yields and quality is timely and essential. Monitoring plant health without destruction is one of the key strategies for improving crop growth practices, complementing current agricultural techniques such as crop rotation, intercropping and genetic modification, ”said Dr. Ghajendra Pratap Singh, Principal Investigator and Senior Research Fellow at DiSTAP.

The team explained its research in a review article entitled “Non-destructive technologies for plant health diagnostics”, published in the prestigious journal Frontiers in Plant Science. The findings show that sensors can be broadly categorized into those that detect internal (in vivo sensors) and external (surface and air) signaling molecules.

In vivo the sensors are based on either electrochemical sensors or plant nanobionic sensors. Recent advances in nanotechnology have allowed electrochemical and plant nanobionic sensors to exhibit higher sensitivity and selectivity through the use of unique electrochemical and optical properties. In addition to internal signaling molecules, plants also emit signals to the surfaces of their organs, as well as through metabolites in the air, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) for communication between plants. The detection of internal and external signals, such as surface and air compounds, allows non-invasive real-time diagnosis of plant diseases.

In addition, the sensors convert plant signals into digital signals to establish direct communication between plants and growers. “By using real-time physiological events of plants, non-destructive sensors allow rapid regulation of environmental conditions to increase crop productivity while minimizing resource use,” added Dr. Tedrick Thomas Salim Liu, a scientist. IMRE of A * STAR and Associate Professor. in NUS CHBE, who was the corresponding author of the article.

“The review gave an idea of ​​sensors that are flexible and have been successful in extracting space-time information from various agriculturally important plant species. The sensors will open the possibility for real-time feedback control schemes that can help the precise application of fertilizers and plant growth regulators to maximize growth, as well as facilitate timely intervention to minimize the loss of stress yield. plants, ”said Mervyn Ang, a Research Scientist at DiSTAP and the first author of the article.

To address the deep challenges of food production in Singapore and around the world, DiSTAP has over the years introduced new analytical tools that are fast, non-destructive and have the ability to detect and provide information from live plants in real time. This latest review aims to improve the technologies that can be applied to the study of agriculturally relevant crops in the field, bridging the knowledge gap between model plants commonly used in plant biology and economically important crops.

reference: Ang MCY, Lew TTS. Non-destructive technologies for plant health diagnostics. In front. Plant Sci. 2022; 13. doi: 10.3389 / fpls.2022.884454

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