CCOVI research looks to specialized camera technology for early detection of grapevine viruses

Imagine being able to detect, and then manage, the presence of a grapevine virus before symptoms are even visible in the vineyard.

Sudarsana Poojari, Senior Staff Scientist at Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI), is working to help the grape and wine industry do exactly that — without a hefty price tag or the need to work with complicated equipment and data.

Poojari is heading up a new research project that is investigating the use of a hand-held hyperspectral imaging system to detect Grapevine Red Blotch Virus and Grapevine leafroll-associated virus 3 in young and asymptomatic grapevines.

The goal is to identify unique spectral signatures that indicate the presence of these viruses in the early stages of infection. That data would then be shared with the industry, allowing grape growers to make more informed grapevine disease management decisions.

Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute Scientist Sudarsana Poojari, right, and post-doctoral fellow Balaji Devatha examine grapevines in Brock’s greenhouse to develop baseline data for the project.

It’s very difficult to identify these virus infections based on visual observations alone, so we need something to detect what our eyes cannot see,” Poojari explained. “A system for the detection and discrimination of grapevine viruses in young and asymptomatic phenotypes would provide a much-needed tool to the grape and wine sector.”

The research team includes Poojari, CCOVI Researcher Jim Willwerth, post-doctoral fellow Balaji Devatha, and Wendy McFadden-Smith, Horticulture Integrated Pest Management Specialist at the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs. The Ontario Agri-Food Research Initiative Commercialization Stream is supporting this work with a $145,000 grant.

Mitigation and management of grapevine viral disease has been the priority for the grape and wine sector in Canada, and Poojari has seen a steady increase in the number of samples that are showing infection coming into CCOVI’s Grapevine Virus Testing lab year after year.

Once a virus infects the plant there is no cure, so tools for early detection are the best way for growers to protect the health of their vineyards.

High-end hyperspectral camera technology is used in agricultural settings to detect other diseases, as well as nutrient imbalances and water levels in the soil. It uses special optics to capture hundreds of spectral bands and has traditionally been used in conjunction with drones and specialized experts who assess the data.

Just like fingerprints, every object has a unique spectral signature, and Poojari said researchers will attempt to use these signatures to identify differences between healthy, asymptomatic and symptomatic grapevine leaves. They have begun baseline testing on plants in Brock’s greenhouse and will collect field data at various intervals throughout the growing season starting next year.

To make this technology more accessible across the industry, Poojari and his team are using a more affordable hand-held camera and will work with Devatha to distill the complex data into practical information that can be easily applied in the vineyard.

“That’s the whole hallmark of this project – to fine-tune the data so that everyone can understand it,” Poojari said.

Researchers at Brock’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute are using hyperspectral camera technology to identify grapevine viruses in the early stages of infection.

Devatha, who has a background in Physics and Materials Science, specializes in the use of this type of technology.

“I have always wanted to contribute work towards sustainability. When the opportunity arose to make viticulture more sustainable with the help of a brilliant team led by Dr. Poojari, I just jumped into it,” he said.

Partnering with Willwerth and McFadden-Smith will also ensure the data gets directly into the hands of growers, helping to further bolster the broader work CCOVI and its partners are doing to develop a national clean plant program for grapevines.

“If we could come up with a tool that could determine the health status of the young vineyards, I think that would provide grape growers the opportunity to make informed virus-management decisions,” Poojari said.

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