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Device sniffs out the "smell-fingerprints" of pestered plants


A team of Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and university scientists have developed an electronic nose to sniff out whitefly infestations of tomato plants.

The "E-Nose" works by detecting a specific cocktail of chemicals, called volatile organic compounds (VOCs), that tomato plants release into the air when attacked by whiteflies.  In nature, these chemicals put other plants on high alert. Scientists are hoping the E-nose will also warn growers so they can fine-tune their use of whitefly-killing insecticides, biocontrol agents like parasitic wasps or other measures.  

According to Heping Zhu, an agricultural engineer with the ARS Application Technology Research Unit in Wooster, Ohio, who co-developed the E-nose with collaborators at The Ohio State and the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, whiteflies are top insect pests of U.S. fresh-market tomatoes, which were valued at $721 million in 2020.

Left unchecked, adult whiteflies and their immature nymphs probe the undersides of tomato plant leaves for sap, causing them to turn yellow, curl or drop off. Whitefly feeding can also cause uneven ripening of fruit and transmit viral diseases that weaken the plants further. 

Monitoring or alerting
Whitefly monitoring typically involves checking for a threshold number of the pests per leaf on a sampling of plants or captured in sticky traps—both a time-consuming process. But, scientists wondered, what if the plants could alert the growers themselves—and in real-time?


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