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June 4, 2021 2:13 pm

‘Fluorescent’ Potatoes Can Signal Stress, in Israeli Research to Help Farmers Fight Climate Change

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avatar by Sharon Wrobel

Fluorescence microscopic imaging showing the accumulation of the biosensor in chloroplasts. Photo: courtesy Shilo Rosenwasser

Scientists in Israel have developed a method to track the feelings of plants and detect their stress levels when they are in need. According to a new paper published in May in Plant Physiology by Matanel Hipsch under the direction of Dr. Shilo Rosenwasser at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the researchers developed potatoes capable of fluorescing in different colors — signaling to farmers in a real-time environment early warning signs of stress so that they can act before their crop and produce is harmed or damaged.

By using a highly sensitive fluorescent camera, the scientists monitored the change in emitted fluorescent as an indicator to stress conditions such as drought, extreme temperature, and bright light.

“The next step for us will be to work on the development of an easy-to-use portable camera to provide farmers with a more affordable device than we are using now,” Rosenwasser said in an interview with The Algemeiner. “We are now looking into finding the right company. Since we published our research, we have been approached by two Israeli companies who are interested in working with us on the development of devices.”

Plants, like human beings, suffer if they are exposed to weather conditions that are too hot or too cold, or when they are thirsty or malnourished. These external factors can cause harm to plants and impact their ability to undergo photosynthesis and produce fruit. As a result, farmers suffer from produce losses, which are expected to increase in view of the potential increase in environmental stresses caused by global climate change. If plants could talk — communicating their needs by sending farmers an early warning sign that they weren’t doing well — this would help them take measures to protect their produce and safeguard national food sources.

“Crop plants live in highly dynamic environments, in which abiotic stresses, such as salinity, drought, high temperature and high light, are thought to be the major constraints of crop production and ultimately of food security,” the scientists wrote in the paper.

Rosenwasser explained that the researchers chose to focus on the potato as it is the third most important food source, it is crucial for worldwide food security, and it comprises 40% of Israel’s exports. Furthermore, the potato provides ‎essential nutrients such as dietary fiber, vitamins, minerals, protein, and antioxidants. Going forward, Rosenwasser and his team are planning to try and copy the method with other crops. Additionally, they seek to expand the range of early detection to monitor when plants are under attack by insects, or when farmers need to take prompt action against fungus.

Dr. Shilo Rosenwasser at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Photo: Jeremy Wimpfheimer

According to the published paper, the researchers genetically engineered a potato by implanting a new gene coded to a fluorescent protein that switches color depending on the level of free radicals, also known as reactive oxygen species — highly reactive molecules which accumulate as stress levels rise. The molecular biosensor was placed into the plant’s chloroplasts, which are organelles that conduct photosynthesis, the chemical process that transfers light into the energy to boost plant growth. The findings of the research showed that the more stressed the plant is, the brighter its fluorescent glows.

“To the best of my knowledge, our potato lines are the first example of using genetically encoded proteins to detect stress responses in crop plants,” Rosenwasser said.

Commenting on the research, Prof. Ted Farmer at the Department of Plant Molecular Biology at the University of Lausanne said that the “work moves research forward by engineering an important crop plant (potato) with a powerful sensor of oxidative stress.”

“Fluorescent proteins have been expressed previously in crop plants including tomato, eggplant, melon, etc., and the idea to use genetically expressed sensor proteins as ‘sentinels’ to detect stress responses in plants is not new,” Farmer told The Algemeiner. “However, what makes this new work stand out is that the authors used a modified form of green fluorescent protein (GFP) that detects oxidative stress in plants.”

Famer added that the researchers “performed some really nice experiments with high light/low temperature and with drought stress.”

“The whole-plant imaging they used is quite avant-garde,” he said.

Asked about whether the work will be useful to farmers, Farmer said that it still needs to be tried and tested in the field.

“Plants respond invisibly before they respond visibly, so any method that works in the period before leaves curl, yellow or wilt will be valuable,” he said. “I think there will be competition between those who will try to use optical methods and those that use physiological methods (such as measuring gas exchange, etc.). This competition will be good as it should advance the field.”

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