Digital plant doctor diagnoses plant problems

July 23, 1999

A picture may be worth more than a thousand words.

University of Florida specialists are using a new system that uses digital cameras and the World Wide Web to send photographs of insects and diseased plants from the field to the lab for rapid diagnosis and identification.

Researchers, extension agents and software developers with UF's Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences developed the Distance Diagnostics and Identification System, or DDIS, to speed up identification of plant and animal physiological disorders. Until now, reliable diagnosis meant mailing plant material to UF labs, which often caused costly delays.

"Basically, what we're doing is crunching down to zero all the time needed to communicate with each other," said Fedro Zazueta, director of information technologies for UF. "The benefits will reach from consumers and homeowners all the way to commercial growers, where diseases can cost tens of thousands of dollars."

According to UF software developer Jiannong Xin, the DDIS also is a perfect example of university research responding to the concerns of Florida residents.

"While many projects are initiated by software developers, this one was initiated by county extension agents who came to us with what they needed," said Xin.

In fact, the development of the DDIS started with a strange plant in a Monticello homeowner's backyard.

When Pat Murphy had an allergic reaction to some vines he was trimming, he called Jefferson County Extension Director Larry Halsey to verify they were indeed what was causing him to swell up.

Unable to find an answer in any of Florida's poisonous plant guides, Halsey snapped some digital photos of the plant, loaded them onto his computer, and e-mailed them as attachments to specialists in the herbarium at UF's Florida Museum of Natural History.

When, only 40 minutes later, he got a positive identification back from botanist Kent Perkins, Halsey knew he was onto something.

"Ordinarily, it takes at least two days to get a response back on a sample that's been mailed out for diagnosis," said Halsey. "In this case, the turnaround time was reduced from a matter of days to a matter of minutes."

Halsey and Madison County extension agent Jim Fletcher began snapping and e-mailing digital images on a regular basis hoping to build a system for distance plant disease diagnosis. Eventually, they realized a more effective way of developing the system would be to move it to the Web.

"We decided we needed to convert the e-mail project because of the large amount of time and memory it takes to send and store images over e-mail," said Fletcher. "The Web-based DDIS program compresses the images even further than e-mail and sends them in about half the time."

When they asked Xin to develop software for the project, they found that the capabilities of the DDIS could be expanded well beyond what they had originally imagined. Xin built the program around an object-searchable database, which makes it possible to store images in a centralized archive shared by UF extension agents and specialists.

Developed by software specialist Howard Beck, the database is searchable through a broad range of categories such as individual diseases, crops, counties or symptoms. Because the archive is accessible through the Web, the images will be easy to pull off for a wide range of instructional purposes.

"If you can take a picture of it, you can send it to the archive," said Halsey. "For instance, we've successfully identified a strange jellyfish-like critter in a catfish pond that turned out to be an invasive colony."

Not only does the system reduce the problem of having mailed samples get held up over the weekend, according to Halsey it allows for much more flexible communication between extension agents and specialists.

"When you talk about symptoms in a crop such as discolored foliage or leafspots, the reason could be diseases, nutritional deficiencies or excesses, or environmental stress. Now, extension agents can get a sample to specialists in all three categories at once."

While the DDIS may not rule out the necessity of sending physical samples in every case, its archive eventually will become a powerful educational tool for extension agents.

"We're working on training county faculty in the basics of plant pathogens and insect identification," said UF entomologist Dick Sprenkle. "The archive will give them a wealth of knowledge that can eventually be used to diagnose a problem on-site."

The DDIS is now available at extension agencies throughout Florida. Currently, agents in ten counties are testing the next phase of the project, which will equip county agents with digital stereoscopes and microscopes to produce more accurate, detailed images for diagnosis.
By: Erica Pittman

Fedro Zazueta 352-392-0429
Larry Halsey 850-342-0187

University of Florida

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