The handheld technology allows farmers to identify plant diseases in the field. Photo credit: Zheng Li, NC State University

Researchers at North Carolina State University have developed portable technology that allows farmers to identify plant diseases in the field. The handheld device, which is plugged into a smartphone, works by sampling the airborne volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that plants release through their leaves.

“All plants release VOCs as they ‘breathe,’ but the type and concentration of those VOCs changes when a plant is diseased,” says Qingshan Wei, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and corresponding author of a paper on the work. “Each disease has its own signature profile of VOCs. So, by measuring the type and concentration of VOCs being released by the plant, you can determine whether a plant is diseased and – if it is diseased – which disease it has.

“Our contribution here is the creation of a device that can be plugged into a smartphone and used to make those VOC measurements quickly in the field,” says Wei, who is also a faculty member in NC State’s Emerging Plant Disease and Global Food Security cluster.

Current disease identification techniques rely on molecular assays, which take hours to perform and – most importantly – have to be done in a lab. Getting a sample to the lab, where the sample may have to wait to be tested, can delay disease identification by days or weeks.

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Originally published July 29, 2019.

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