The industry accounts for 74 percent of the region’s soil loss every year
To help cultivated tomato plants defend against whiteflies, Petra Bleeker of the University of Amsterdam is turning to a wild relative, Solanum habrochaites. It makes its own insect repellants, compounds called terpenes, in glands at the tips of abundant hairs. Commercial tomatoes still show vestiges of this hairy chemistry. “If you put your finger on these hairs, on the green parts, you smell the typical tomato smell,” she says. The trick will be breeding the power to make repellants back into domestic plants without introducing unwanted traits.
Turlings is taking a different approach to helping beleaguered tomatoes. Because the odors that waft off plants can be highly specific to what has attacked them, machines with sensitive “noses” could raise an alarm when particularly problematic insects or pathogens arrive. “It sounds futuristic, but a robot might sniff the plants,” Turlings says. Even his human (but very experienced) nose can smell the difference between scents released by two corn plants under attack by a different, but related, caterpillar species, he says.
Monitoring for those scents might warn a farmer in time to squelch pest invasions early. Quick action could be particularly important for pests like whiteflies that accelerate their own spread through false signals to eavesdroppers.