Electronically Sniffing Out Tomato Plant Pests

Brian GermanRadio Reports, Technology

A new device created by USDA’s Agriculture Research Service (ARS) and university scientists from Ohio has the ability to sniff out pests on plants.

Whiteflies are pests that infect tomato plants and if left unchecked can probe themselves to the bottom of plant leaves causing them to turn yellow, curl or drop off.  They can also transmit viral diseases and hinder the ripening process. Monitoring for whitefly is time-consuming and it typically involves checking the plant’s leaves for pests or by capturing them on sticky traps.


A new device called the E-Nose can spot whitefly infestations on tomato plants by detecting the chemicals released by an infested plant. The chemical reaction is called volatile organic compounds or VOCs and is used to send out a warning to other plants that pests are on the rise.  ARS notes one key feature of the device is its “nerve-like circuitry board that helps convert VOC samples from the air into digital signals. These signals, in turn, are transmitted to the system’s “brain,” namely, a mathematical algorithm programmed to recognize specific types and concentrations—or “smell-fingerprints”—of VOCs that tomato plants give off when attacked.” When tested in greenhouses, the device was able to correctly differentiate infested from un-infested plants and which plants had damage to the leaves.

Heping Zhu, an agricultural engineer with the ARS Application Technology Research Unit in Wooster, Ohio,  and co-creator said, “The future E-nose system can be designed as a hand-held device for growers to take samples from individual plants.” Zhu adds, “It can also be designed as a computer-controlled cloud networking system which consists of multiple smart sensors placed at different locations in the greenhouse, so the computer can automatically collect samples and monitor infestations 24 hours a day.”

The goal is to use the E-Nose is to assist growers in the use of biocontrol agents like parasitic wasps and other measures.

Listen to the full report below.

Electronically Sniffing Out Tomato Plant Pests

Danielle Leal
Multi-Media Journalist & AgNet News Hour Anchor