The fungi-est thing about grapes could be solved with AI

in September 2nd, 2021

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Growing clean, infection-free grapes is quite an intense process. Grapes are not only very sensitive to weather, but also commonly threatened by powdery mildew, a fungal disease that attacks vineyards and can spoil entire harvests. California alone (where most of the nation’s grapes grow) spends ~$239 million managing this powdery mildew every year.

One solution is to identify the grape varieties showing resistance to the fungus for breeding — but the inspection process for it is manual and time consuming. Leaf samples are cut into tiny one-centimeter discs and microscopically inspected, one-by-one for evidence of infection.

Now this normally months-long, manual process process can be completed in a single day by a smart robot built by two Cornell researchers (one plant pathologist and one engineer). The robot takes high resolution images of the grape leaves and uses facial recognition technology to identify biological traits. This not only frees up researchers’ time and energy, but could also save millions of dollars for other breeding and genetics research. Upgrades to the robot’s hardware are also being planned, which could help farmers catch infections earlier and spray just the areas that need fungicide.

And it’s not just grapes that suffer from powdery mildew, which thrives in moist conditions. Strawberries are also very susceptible. While past protective measures have included wrapping the strawberries to protect against contact with surrounding leaves, current research is exploring climate control within greenhouses. Other plants commonly infected include:

  • Cucurbits, such as squash, pumpkins, cucumbers, or melons
  • Nightshades, such as tomatoes, eggplants, or peppers
  • And a variety of others, including roses, legumes, and even cannabis

🎬 Take Action

If you grow at home, read more on powdery mildew (that white stuff you may see appear on your plants!) and how to safely treat it.

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