Artificial intelligence is driving plant breeding – helping to accelerate the development of crops that scientists hope can better cope with devastating drought and heat.
- Experiencing Parts of the US Corn Belt extreme or exceptional drought. In Nebraska, 35% of the corn crop is considered poor or very bad condition.
- Some of these prolonged dry spells are caused by human-induced climate change, others are exacerbated by it, but together they form a window into the future. drier and hotter future predicted in some regions.
- These climate changes and increasing global food insecurity are putting pressure on breeders to develop more resilient plants more quickly.
What is going on: Machine learning algorithms and other AI tools have been used by some companies for about a decade, but they are becoming more widely available to breeders.
- Breeders use them to analyze data that reflects what is known about plant biology – for example, how tall or fast a plant grows and whether it can withstand hot or dry conditions in a region.
- That data could help AI predict the combination of genes — and the genes they regulate — that can improve a plant’s tolerance without reducing yield.
- Instead of crossing plants for generations to find the most suitable, breeders can use AI to more quickly predict which genetics deliver the desired properties.
There are some considerations, however, between how much water a plant uses and how much grain, corn, or other product a plant can yield — and debate how far breeders can go with both.
- AI could “help breeders walk through this complex labyrinth,” said Charlie Messina, a professor of predictive breeding at the University of Florida.
Details: In a recent researchMessina and colleagues assessed how hybrids of drought-tolerant maize grown using AI grew under different water conditions.
- In contrast to Previous research, they report that the hybrids bred for better drought tolerance had better yields. (The hybrid is commercially available from Corteva, and scientists from the company participated in the study. Messina previously worked for the company.)
- The scientists also found that the hybrid plants had a smaller difference in yield in normal and dry conditions, meaning they produced a more reliable amount of corn under different conditions. One of the challenges posed by climate change is hydrological extremes, which amplify both droughts and heavy rainfall.
But, but, but… A study published earlier this year, it was found that the increase in maize yields was largely due to climate and improved soil and crop management, not plant genetics.
- “This is an important debate because it could affect investment – both public and private – in technologies to tackle drought and climate change,” Messina said.
- “If we don’t get to the root of the problem, we as a society can invest in the wrong solutions,” he says.
- AlphaFoldan in-depth learning system developed by DeepMind predicting the structure of proteins was used, along with other tools, to study the genes and proteins involved in the response of potatoes to elevated temperatures. (The AlphaFold founders won the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences today.)
The big picture: Genetics is only one factor in the yield and resilience of a crop.
- There is also the environment of a field and how the soil and water are managed and possibly tailored to a crop.
- Farmers are under their own pressure to produce a certain amount of a crop and may be under pressure for resources.
Messina says his goal is the integration of information about the genetics of a plant, the environment of a field and the management of a crop.
- Ultimately, he wants to “move from thinking about drought tolerance in a crop to thinking about crops as systems to combat climate change and improve nutrition and food security.”