March 15, 2023 — With a focus on global food insecurity, researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem developed a new molecular sensor system that detects harmful diseases in plants and food crops including potatoes and tomatoes.

Potatoes are the world’s third major food source. Early detection of late blight disease, which gave rise to the Irish Potato Famine, could help reduce global food insecurity. Today, the disease is a leading cause of potato and tomato crop loss and costs an estimated $6.5 billion in annual worldwide damage.

In a cover story published in The Plant Journal, researchers used genetic engineering methods to produce new potato varieties that produce special proteins. These proteins act as a biological sensor that can be sent, for example, to the chloroplasts in the plant’s cells, where photosynthesis occurs.

The researchers used sensitive cameras that can detect sensor signals that obtain spatial information about the entire plant and monitor the plant’s physiological state throughout the development of late blight in the potato.

Potato plants grown in the greenhouse were infected with potato late blight (P. infestans) or sprayed with water as control.

The study was led by doctoral student Matanel Hipsch under the supervision of Dr. Shilo Rosenwasser of Hebrew University’s Robert H. Smith Institute of Plant Sciences and Genetics in Agriculture. They collaborated with Dr. David Helman from Hebrew University’s Department of Soil and Water Sciences, who developed an AI-based algorithm capable of analyzing the fluorescent images and distinguishing between healthy and infected leaves.

The research also revealed that the protein detected diseased areas of the leaves even during the first invisible stages. Another fascinating finding suggests that the areas infected with late blight are characterized by higher photosynthetic activity compared to the rest of the leaf. This indicates how the pathogen maintains and even improves leaf productivity in the early stages of the disease to ‘disguise’ its development in the plant, according to the researchers.

“The development of advanced biotechnological tools for early plant disease detection can lead to a future research breakthrough in understanding the pathogenicity process and minimize agricultural damage,” Dr. Rosenwasser says.

Hebrew University researchers Dr. Nardy Lampl and Omer Sapir of the Institute of Plant Sciences, Dr. Yaron Michaeli of the Advanced Institute for Environmental Sciences at the Faculty of Agriculture, and Prof. Yigal Cohen from the Goodman Faculty of Life Sciences at Bar-Ilan University also participated in the study.

This research was supported by the Israel Science Foundation (No. 827/17) and ICA in Israel foundation.