Automatic image analysis "will help breed more stress-resistant fruit plants"

UK scientists are developing new technology to remotely monitor soft fruit crops for stress brought on by drought or attacks by pests or diseases.

Image: AHDB Horticulture
Image: AHDB Horticulture

The project is funded by an Innovate UK consortium, including AHDB Horticulture and The James Hutton Institute and is being run by JHI until October 2017. It is hoped the results will enable growers to not only monitor plants remotely, but also alert them when crop protection is needed or control fertigation.

James Hutton Institute geneticist and project lead Julie Graham explained: "Infra-red thermography can measure leaf temperature, which is related to stomatal opening and is a reliable indicator of plant physiological status."

Other environmental stresses can induce a range of changes in the leaf surface and internal structure, cause certain compounds to accumulate or lead to the breakdown of photosynthetic pigments, altering the colour of the leaf in a way detectable by an imaging technique known as spectral reflectance. This can be compared with a library of signatures expected from an unstressed plant or one exposed to known stresses.

AHDB knowledge exchange manager Scott Raffle added: "Poor soil conditions, variable availability of water and attack by root rot pathogens or root-feeding pests can all stress the roots of crops such as raspberry.

"We hope, in the future, this system will provide growers with the technology to respond to these challenges more efficiently than by manually walking their growing areas to monitor plant stresses."

The system has primarily been conceived as a tool to help soft fruit breeders select plants for stress resistance, by enabling this to be measured quickly and objectively.

Chair of the AHDB Horticulture soft fruit panel Dr Louise Sutherland said: "New resilient varieties of soft fruit crops that need less fertigation and are more resistant to pests and diseases are crucial for the industry, which faces increasing pressure on the availability of water, a reduction in the armoury of crop protection products and higher fertiliser costs, and so technological advancements that can help soft fruit farmers to combat these pressures are crucial."

An additional project that will develop early detection of stress, specifically in strawberry plants, using hyperspectral image analysis, is being run by a PHD Studentship programme funded by AHDB Horticulture.

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