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NASA just developed a revolutionary technology that could change the way our wine tastes: 'These are exciting times'

It can take up to a year for infected plants to show symptoms of grapevine leafroll virus.

Laboratory used an airborne imaging instrument to detect infection in grapevines

Photo Credit: iStock

Researchers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California have used an airborne imaging instrument to detect infection in grapevines up to a year before symptoms could become visible to the human eye.

Plant-killing molds, bacteria, and other pathogens destroy an estimated 15% to 30% of global harvests each year. Detecting these diseases early can make or break a harvest. Unfortunately, it's not always easy to diagnose plant pathogens. 

"Like humans, sick plants may not exhibit outward symptoms right away, making early detection the greatest challenge facing growers," plant pathologist and lead researcher Dr. Kaitlin Gold said.

In the case of GLRaV-3 (grapevine leafroll-associated virus complex 3), a disease that sours grapes and costs the U.S. wine industry roughly $3 billion in losses and damages each year, detection is especially tricky. It can take up to a year for infected plants to show symptoms of the grapevine leafroll virus. Vine-by-vine checks are conducted, and vine samples are collected for molecular testing, but these methods are labor-intensive and costly.

NASA's next-generation Airborne Visual/InfraRed Imaging Spectrometer uses a different approach. AVIRIS-NG has optical sensors that monitor interactions between sunlight and chemical bonds invisible to the naked eye. In the past, it has been used to detect and monitor wildfires, oil spills, and air pollution from volcanic eruptions.

Though it can take a year before symptoms of grapevine leafroll virus become detectable, infected plants experience stress at the cellular level shortly after infection. This stress changes the way sunlight interacts with the plant's tissue. AVIRIS-NG can record these changes, as NASA noted.

Monitoring nearly 11,000 acres of vineyards in central California, AVIRIS-NG observed the reactions of chemical bonds and sunlight and fed this data to a computer model developed to detect signs of infection. The researchers found that using the spectrometer, they could detect infection in both symptomatic and asymptomatic plants with up to 87% accuracy. Their findings were corroborated by manual vineyard checks and molecular testing. 

Though the study only focused on grapevine leafroll virus, the researchers hope that this technology will be used in the future to detect a wide variety of diseases afflicting many crops. Ryan Pavlik, a research technologist at JPL, said: "The ultimate vision that we have is being able to do this across the planet for many crop diseases and for growers all over the world."

Technology like AVIRIS-NG could present a solution to spreading plant pathogens. As temperatures rise, plant pathogens native to warmer climates will expand their ranges, threatening global crop production. Detecting these diseases early allows growers to intervene before the infection can spread.

Fernando Romero Galvan, a doctoral candidate and lead author of the two studies the research led to, said: "I think these are exciting times for remote sensing and plant disease detection. Scalable solutions can help growers make data-driven, sustainable crop management decisions."

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