Macademics: Portable Disease Detection

Hey Everyone! Happy first day of August! The summer is winding down fast which means it's almost time for back to school season. I hope you all have been living your best lives this summer. Today is also our favorite time of the month because it's time for another installment of #Macademics! Today I'm going to share with you some research from North Carolina State. The Wei group has developed a portable method to detect diseases in plants using a smartphone. I won't go into a lot of technical detail about it, but I'll give you the basics of how it works.

First things first, how can you tell plants have diseases? As many of you probably know, in our bodies there are certain biomarkers that can let doctors know whether or not we have a specific disease or not. It's the same with plants. When plants "breathe" they release what's called a "volatile organic compound" or VOC. That smell that comes off plants? That's a type of VOC. There are a many types of VOCs and they're present at different concentrations, but when a plant is diseased that changes. This group has found a way to not only detect the type of VOC (which helps determine the disease) but also the concentration with a smartphone.

Here's the rundown of how it works.

Let's say I'm a farmer and I think one of my plants is sick. I can take a leaf from that plant and put it in a test tube and leave it capped for 15 minutes - this allows for the VOCs to accumulate in the tube for detection. Once the 15 minutes is over, I'd remove the cap and use a plastic tube to pump the gas into the device that's connected to my phone. It's pumped into the part of the device that houses a paper strip, which has a bunch of chemicals on it that change colors when it comes in contact with a specific type of VOC. Then I'd look at the color pattern on the strip and will be able to tell if my plant is sick or not, and if so, what disease it is.

Pretty cool right?

This technology is in the beginning stages of development, but so far the Wei group has been able to detect and classify 10 different VOCs to a fairly small concentration ( on the order of 1/1, 000,000) with an accuracy of about 95%. Future directions for this type of technology would be to use the phone's software for analysis of the color patterns and potentially make paper strips specific to other crops.

Want to read about the details I left out? Here's the link to the article.

See you next week!

-The Chemist


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