Photo Credit: Jennifer Boyer
Famine (1997) by Dublin sculptor Rowan Gillespie is dedicated to the memory of the Irish people who suffered from the Great Famine.

From 1845 to 1849, the Irish Potato Famine, caused by a failure of the potato crop, brought mass starvation and disease in Ireland. The worst year was 1847, known as Black ’47. Roughly one million people died and more than a million fled the country, and the country’s population fell by 25%, and in some towns by as much as 67%. By 1855, more than 2.1 million people left Ireland, one of the greatest exoduses in modern history.

The crop failures in Ireland were caused by late blight, a disease that destroys both the leaves and the edible roots, or tubers, of the potato plant. Today, despite advances in increased food production, half of all the world’s harvested food is still lost due to rots caused by microorganisms. Plants emit various volatile organic compounds into their surrounding environment, which can be monitored for early detection of plant disease and to prevent food loss.


A new study led by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Volcani Institute, Israel’s Agricultural Research Organization, details the success of a biological sensor for the early detection of hidden disease in potato tubers, one of Israel’s chief export industries at 700,000 tons a year.

Biological sensor for early detection of hidden disease in potato tubers. / Hebrew University

Israeli farmers import European potatoes for planting. However, a certain percentage of the potatoes carry diseases within—either visibly or invisibly—that cause rot and significantly reduce the potato’s quality. The Hebrew University-Volcani alliance is about to change that. They’ve developed a sensor that detects disease and can be used to inhibit the rot from growing and spreading. Their study, published in the upcoming edition of Talanta (Whole-cell bacterial biosensor for volatile detection from Pectobacterium-infected potatoes enables early identification of potato tuber soft rot disease), was conducted by Dr. Dorin Harpaz and her Ph.D. student Boris Veltman at HU’s Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, under the supervision of Dr. Evgeni Eltzov of the Volcani Institute. The team collaborated with the Volcani Institute’s Dr. Sarit Melamed and Dr. Zipora Tietel, as well as Dr. Leah Tsror from the Gilat Research Center.

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

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

To form the bacteria panel, the team created a compound of four genetically-engineered bacteria that measure biological toxicity. In this study, the biological sensor detected disease before there was any visible trace, and caused the optical sensor to shine twice as brightly as the sensors in non-infected potatoes. Their capabilities were also demonstrated in a previous study that used the sensors to detect toxicity among artificial sweeteners in sports supplements.

According to the researchers, early discovery of disease––before the potatoes are exported to foreign markets or replanted, offers a significant advantage to food growers.

“The biological sensor can be used to quickly and economically identify hidden rot in potatoes, facilitate better post-harvest management, and reduce food wastage—particularly important given the current global food crisis,” concluded Harpaz.

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