13TSB_AgriFood Measurement of Biochemical Traits in Fresh Produce using Imaging Technologies

Lead Research Organisation: Northumbria University
Department Name: Fac of Health and Life Sciences


The research to be conducted at the University of Northumbria relates to the biochemical characterisation of the ripening process across a range of tomato cultivars. Tomatoes are one of the most widespread crops in the world with an annual production in excess of 145 million tonnes per annum with a number of cultivars being commercially explored. Through this project we aim to identify and link specific commercially important attributes of tomatoes with biochemical functions at the molecular level. The content of important compounds, metabolites and proteins, that contribute to quality characteristics of tomatoes such as flavour, colour, micronutrients, firmness and taste will be determined and where possible linked to specific sequences of genes that encode such traits. This will allow plant breeders and growers to fully exploit the genetic make-up of existing varieties and develop novel cultivars with enhanced quality characteristics through cross breeding (non GMO approaches). The recenly published tomato genome database will be used in this project to drive information and build Biochemical data will be correlated with sensory data in order to identify cause and effect relationships as those are experienced by consumers.

Working together with our industrial partners we also aim to develop tools that could be used by plant breeders, growers and retailers to assess quality. Such tools include, the use of digital and hyperspectal imaging to identify and quantify in a non-invasive manner important quality characteristics. Most of the tools used by the industry currently relate to either fairly cost effective measurements that lack though the necessary detail or particularly advanced methodologies that are both laborious and expensive to conduct. Our approach will lead to the development of cost effective tools that could improve the current methodologies while either complementing or replacing chemical analysis. An example of the application of such tools is in the determination of the ripening stage of tomatoes. Currently this is achieved either by the determination of the sugar content and/or in certain instances by the determination of colour through subjective observations which are complemented by the use of printed colour charts. Those charts are typically generic in nature and provide very limited information (the user is asked to assess the colour of tomatoes by comparing it to printed pictures). The use of digital imaging offers the possibility to extract more information and objectively map the evolution of colour through the ripening stage. Moreover, the use of hyperspectral imaging, (otherwise known as chemical imaging) will assist in extracting even more information. For example using this technology it is possible to determine the sugar content and firmness of fruits in a non-invasive manner. Such tools could then be deployed in the field, pack houses and retailers to more accurately and non-invasively determine the quality of tomatoes.

Through our approaches we aim to create methodologies, technologies, databases and mathematical models that will be able to predict the quality of tomatoes based on digital and hyperspectal imaging and /or targeted genomic tests while at the same time enhance our knowledge in the field and create workflows that will allow the development of new tomato cultivars with enhanced quality characteristics.

Technical Summary

The proposed project builds on the expertise of a strong consortium to develop digital and hyperspectral imaging tools that will allow the phenotypic characterisation of fresh produce. Such tools will be demonstrated in both controlled environments and in the field to allow for the characterisation and prediction of yields, nutrient content and quality characteristics such as colour, flavour and texture across the supply chain. Biochemical traits will also be correlated with sensory evaluation attributes to derive cause-effect relationships that affect consumer choice and hence commercial value. Moreover, technology developments will be complemented with genomic data to assist future developments in the field of plant breeding and the effect of environmental factors on product quality. This applied industrial research project will use different varieties of tomato plants (Solanum lycopersicon) as the subject of the investigations with the potential to build applications for other commercially important genera/species.

Planned Impact

The proposed investigations are pertinent to a number of industrial sectors and academic disciplines that are inherently linked with the UK and global society. The commercial, social and academic impact of the proposed program are listed below:

Commercial Impact
1. Plant Breeding. Tools and Technologies developed during and as a direct output of this project will enable plant breeders to accurately assess quality of tomatoes fruits thus increasing the efficiency of current processes and allow fast screening solutions to be implemented in their workflows.
2. Growers: Applications of the technologies and workflows will allow better control of the fresh produce production with the potential of economic benefits due to increased yields, premium quality and savings in the use of pesticides and fertilisers.
3. Pack Houses: Control processes implementing these technologies will also assist pack houses to increase their efficiency by prompt decision making, accurate and efficient sorting based on quality characteristics and reductions in waste.
4. Retailers: Control of quality at the pack house will also create benefits for the retailers while better quality products derived as a result of our investigations is also expected to lead to increased sales.
5. Instrumentation Suppliers: Instrumentation suppliers will benefit from the development of technology and workflows that will lead to new instruments that could enter the market
6. Optical and Electronic Component suppliers: Instruments developed will require the input of optical and electronic components suppliers, therefore benefits to this sector will be realised by increased sales of such components.

Societal Impact
1. Health and Wellbeing. The project aims to develop quick screening tools that will allow for the development of more nutritious products, i.e., tomatoes with increased lycopene levels or vitamin C.
2. Societal development. The project also involves dissemination activities that aim to increase public awareness and understanding of science with particular focus on the relationships between genomics and food quality.
3. Economic Growth. The proposed investigations will enhance the efficiency and sustainability of the process of our industrial collaborators and associated industries contributing towards wealth creation and economic prosperity through sustainable investment. New processes and products will be realised through the exploitation of scientific knowledge with the potential to create new jobs.
4. Environmental. One of the main objectives of the project is to reduce the need for chemical analysis and/or complement those with non-invasive imaging technologies.

Academic Impact: The multifaceted nature of the proposed investigations will create new knowledge and scientific advancement in various academic disciplines, including systems biology, food science and optical imaging science through the development and utilisation of new and innovative methodologies and applications derived from cross-disciplinary approaches. Both academics and research associates involved in the project will strengthen their expertise in their associated fields through dissemination activities including the publication of peer reviewed scientific articles and participation in conferences. Further dissemination activities will target specific international groups (University of Florida and Wageningen University) with expertise in the field of plant biochemistry in order to showcase developments in UK academia and promote future collaborations.


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Description We have identified key metabolic pathways related to flavour compounds of tomato cultivars and have initiated further investigations using genomic tools. We have developed and conducted sensory analysis protocols and applied those in a public setting. We have identified and mapped the localisation of flavour molecules in different types of tissue within the tomato. We have mapped the metabolome during the ripening process of tomato cultivars.
Exploitation Route Development of digital tools and genetic tools for quality mapping. This process is already in use by our partners
Sectors Agriculture, Food and Drink,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Healthcare,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology,Retail

Description Findings are used in combination with digital imaging to drive innovation in the fresh produce industry. A digital colour chart applicable to the project is currently being developed and piloted for implementation in QC workflows Metadata analysis on the impact of tomato consumption on cardiovascular health
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Healthcare,Pharmaceuticals and Medical Biotechnology,Retail
Impact Types Societal,Economic

Description RDF studenship
Amount £57,000 (GBP)
Organisation Northumbria University 
Sector Academic/University
Country United Kingdom
Start 10/2014 
End 10/2017
Title Development of an Improved HPLC methodology for the analysis of carotene and lycopene 
Description HPLC method was performed on an analytical HPLC Ultimate 3000 (Waters, USA). Separation was operated on a Sigma SUPLEX PKB-100 amide column (5µm particle size, 250 mm length x 4.6 mm inner diameter). Isocratic elution was used at a flow rate of 1.5 ml/min. Injection volume was 5 µl. Column temperature was set at 30°C and the autosampler temperature was at 4 °C. The eluting peaks were monitored at 474, 454, 448 and 286 nm using UV-VIS detection. After investigating different parameters, the shortest run time with the optimal resolution was achieved when using 90% mobile phase A (1:1 ACN: MeOH containing 50 ppm BHT in 20 ml 2-propanol, 0.2 ml N-ethyldiisopropylamine, and 50 ppm ammonium acetate dissolved in 25 ml water) and 10% MTBE in the isocratic run of 1.5 ml/min; the injection solvent was MTBE and the injection volume was 5 µl; the column temperature was 30 degrees Celsius. 
Type Of Material Technology assay or reagent 
Year Produced 2017 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact The method has been now part of the methodology portfolio of the group and has been used in other projects including providing services to industrial partners. 
Title New metabolomic workflowson plant metabolome 
Description Development of new metabolomics workflows using HILLIC methodologies via UPLV/MS Advanced methodologies for the determination of volatiles in plant material 
Type Of Material Technology assay or reagent 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Capacity building 
Title Tomato Database 
Description Database on the concentration of flavour compounds in different tomato cultivars. Complemented with sensory data. Genomic work is ongoing 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Economic benefits to breeders and tomato growers