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Disease Early Warning Systems

Publication Date: 
23 May 2017
Author/Contact :
Dr Glynn Harper

Could researchers be close to producing electronic, non-destructive sensors to detect soft rot in tubers? Hear more at AHDB Postharvest Showcase, 27th July

Disease early warning systems

One of the keynote talks at Postharvest Showcase, which takes place at Sutton Bridge Crop Storage Research (SBCSR) on 27th July, will highlight recent advances in potato disease early warning systems following an academic study.

Dr James Covington is an Associate Professor at the University of Warwick. For the last 15 years, he has been developing chemical and biological sensors for detecting a variety of environmental pollutants, biological agents and medical diseases. He has also been heavily involved in the design and development of micro-systems that mimic mammalian sensory systems – so called electronic noses.

In recent years, James has been working on projects to develop an ‘electronic nose’ early warning system for potato diseases, and is also involved with work on sensor development for potato transport and storage systems[i].

Storage diseases

At SBCSR in Lincolnshire, AHDB has a long history of conducting and contributing to research on potato diseases. Advice and guidance on such diseases, including identification charts and best practice examples is available at

There are a number of diseases that can affect potatoes in storage, including a range of rots, scabs, and scurfs.

Rots are one of the most damaging groups of diseases, and soft rot has a significant impact on the sector. Soft rot is a bacterial infection of the tuber and is linked to the field disease blackleg. Pectobacterium atrosepticum is the major cause of blackleg in GB, although Pectobacterium carotovorum can also cause problems. Both bacteria cause tuber soft rot, the symptoms of which cause decay in the field or during storage. These two species respond similarly under different environmental conditions and they are more common in cooler and wet conditions.

Warwick University research

In their study, which began in 2014, a team from Warwick University explored the possibility of early detection of the disease via gas/vapour analysis while tubers are in storage or transit. The study used a recent technology known as Field Asymmetric Ion Mobility Spectrometry (FAIMS).

The study was established as there is no reliable non-destructive method for early identification of potato soft rot, either in store or in open field.

Following the study, it was concluded by the team that gas/VOC analysis may provide a possible solution. Their paper discussed for the first time the use of FAIMS gas analysis technology applied to this problem.

Initial results from the study were very promising, and Dr James Covington has continued to work with SBCSR on future applications, using technologies and approaches that are more applicable to the monitoring of stores. Speaking of his work, he said:

“Through use of the sensors or ‘noses’ we are developing we hope those in industry will be able to spot the development of rot before it takes hold and take appropriate action. We have tweaked existing sensor technology in order to ensure they are affordable, however they are also light and flexible enough to be used in any type of storage or transport situation.”

The sensors may also be able to detect levels of CIPC on tubers, which means store managers can be notified of the correct time to reapply. This will help to prevent both under and over application of the chemical. 

To hear more about this research project and its practical applications, register to attend Postharvest Showcase here. The event will include three other keynote talks, as well as a range of interactive demonstrations. Attendees can expect to gain an insight into the latest innovations in the storage sector and how to harness to the benefit of their business.

Postharvest Showcase at a glance

·         Post-Harvest Showcase, Sutton Bridge CSR,  Thursday 27th July 9:30 am – 4:00 pm

·         Seminars, workshops and interactive demonstrations and displays.

·         BASIS Knowledge Trail

[i]Rutolo, M.F., Iliescu, D., Clarkson, J.P. and Covington, J.A., 2014. Detection of Potato Storage Disease via Gas Analysis: A Pilot Study Using Field Asymmetric Ion Mobility Spectrometry. Sensors, 14, 15939-15952.

[i]Rutolo, M.F., Iliescu, D., Clarkson, J.P. and Covington, J.A., 2016. Early identification of potato storage disease using an array of metal-oxide based gas sensors. Postharvest Biology and Technology, 116, pp.50-58.


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