Potatoes that shine in pain: scientists tap into struggling tubers

Scientists at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem have managed to genetically create a potato to glow in a particular color when it feels under the weather.

Like humans, plants suffer from stress if it is too hot or too cold, or if they don’t get enough food or water.

New research published in Plant Physiology by Matanel Hipsch under the supervision of Dr Shilo Rosenwasser of the plant science department of the university describes the implantation of a gene with a fluorescent protein that changes color depending on the level of free radicals – molecules containing oxygen that accumulate when an organism is under stress. High levels of free radicals can cause significant damage. Fluorescent signage is picked up by a special fluorescent camera.

Dr Rosenwasser told The Times of Israel that the work is still in the research and development stage and the team plans to develop a camera that is easy to use and affordable for farmers. The hope is also to expand and if necessary adapt the technology to measure stress in other cultures, he added.

Dr Shilo Rosenwasser. (Jeremy Wimpfheimer)

The genetic engineering approach contrasts with the more mechanical field of plant nanobionics under development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

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Rather than tampering with genes to get plants to do certain things, plant nanobionics uses tiny sensors – tiny man-made particles that can access a plant’s cells and even subcellular structures, such as chloroplasts.

MIT sensors are made by combining infinitely small tubes with a polymer coating to create fluorescence and emit light. The fluorescence changes color as a target material binds to the polymer coating. This color change is picked up by an infrared camera, which sends an alert to a cell phone or e-mail address.

Used to detect the presence of materials such as arsenic in groundwater – a real problem for many rice farmers who cannot afford laboratory testing – the MIT lab, led by Professor Michael Strano, has also started to use the sensors to intercept the chemical signals that the plant sends when it is under stress.

Plants not only detect problems, but also have “internal signaling like humans have nerves,” Strano told The Times of Israel earlier this year.

MIT has even extended the technology to make plants glow.

A light-emitting watercress encrusted with nanoparticles. (Seon-Yeong Kwak / MIT)

Rosenwasser said the genetic approach has advantages and disadvantages. One of the advantages was that genetic coding only had to be done once. The characteristic is passed on to all future generations of the plant which has been refined. The downside was the fear that people would have genetically modified crops.

One way to counter the latter, Rosenwasser continued, was to plant a number of modified potatoes in a field that would communicate stress, and remove them before the other potatoes were harvested for sale.

The research is being conducted at the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food, and Environment, Hebrew University.

A scanner used to monitor plant fluorescence at Hebrew University (courtesy Matanel Hipsch)

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