Two rows of corn, side by side. One a conventional variety, the other a genetically modified variety. Could you eyeball them and tell the difference?

Probably not.

But imaging technology developed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) can, and scientists believe it will be useful in monitoring large areas of crops to help avoid development of pest resistance in crops.

It’s done with a hyperspectral imaging process, using a special camera that slices one photo into 120 color-specific images, each of which shows a unique characteristic not visible to the naked eye.

So impressive is the technology, which was developed at the Institute for Technology Development at the Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, that it has been placed in the Space Foundation’s Space Technology Hall of Fame.

The Stennis Center is NASA’s primary facility for rocket propulsion testing and is home to its Applied Sciences Directorate, which uses the agency’s unique science results, data, remote sensing, and other technical capabilities to provide information for better decision-making.

The Environmental Protection Agency has teamed with NASA to use the hyperspectral imaging technology to insure that appropriate management techniques are used to avoid development of resistance in corn plant populations. Such resistance, the EPA said, could severely limit the continue use of new biotech varieties of corn.

With 25 million-plus acres of corn planted in the U.S. this year, it would be physically and economically impractical to sample every acre of the crop.

It is hoped the new technology can be used to provide a proactive monitoring capability to inform growers of any developing pest resistance. Early use of the hyperspectral imaging, officials say, could provide the ability to efficiently distinguish between conventional and biotech corn varieties by their unique characteristics and identify pest infestation conditions.

The hyperspectral camera, about the size of a loaf of brad, is mounted on a small aircraft, which typically flies about 8,000 feet above crop fields, imaging the sites every 10 days through the growing season. All of the images are then put into a computer system, which uses data-mining techniques to extract the desired information about the corn plants, pest infestations, etc.

“The spectral imagery of corn hybrids collected during the 2004 growing season begins to show that this imagery can be developed into a component of biotech crop monitoring,” said John A. Glaser of the EPA’s Office of Research and Development’s National Risk Management Research Laboratory at Cincinnati, Ohio. “The clarity of infestation effects in the imagery strongly underscores its potential utility for crop monitoring.”

In addition to its crop monitoring applications on Earth, the research being conducted with genetically modified plants and plant growth “has the potential to contribute significantly to our ability to grow sustainable and nutritious crops in space for our astronaut crews,” said Brian Mitchell of NASA’s Space Partnership Development Program at the Marshall Center, Huntsville, Ala.

“When we go to Mars, we’ll have to grow our own food source. This technology enables early detection of stresses in plants, such as nutrient problems, so corrective action can be taken to maintain the food supply.”

e-mail: hbrandon@primediabusiness.com