Breeding crops in unpredictable climate with sensor technology

Credit: UC Davis.

A new challenge faced by farmers in California is the result of extreme variations in weather that have arisen in recent years. Conventional crop breeding practices have been made more difficult and less effective since it has become harder to breed them for specific conditions, since the conditions are not easy to foresee, and furthermore the weekly change and variation in precipitation and temperature has started to fluctuate more – while it was always possible to breed crops for one weather extreme, it is very difficult to breed crops that suit a variety of unknown extremes.

This is compounded by the increasing unpredictability of pests and viruses – there can be infestations that happen more frequently than in previous years.

The UC Davis Seed Biotechnology Center is trying to deal with this problem. “An extra four to six weeks of heat can produce another generation of aphids and wipe out an entire crop. The insects are multiplying very fast”, according to the director of research at the center, Allen Van Deynze. He continued: “We have the tools to respond quickly to disease and other threats,” Van Deynze said. “We’re hoping to reduce the time it takes to breed for disease resistance from eight years to two or three years.”

The university is hoping to greatly improve the ability of growers to deal with these issues by making it easier to analyse growth patterns and characteristics of different breeds of plants. This will allow farmers to more accurately judge the success of their breeding practices. The company has already been successfully helping farmers to develop over 400 different kinds of cultivars grown in California.

This involves crossing different strains of plant types over different years of growth selecting for characteristics well-adapted to the environment and taste and yield requirements. This is more or less the same process that has been used since plants were domesticated in the early Neolithic era.

Of course, things have become much more efficient since then, and in particular genetic analysis of plants brings a level of detail in breeding unlike anything before. This is the focus of the staff a UC Davis, but there are more methods available that they are developing to focus on the physical characteristics of cultivars. This DNA analysis is done with the aid of computers.

But the subject gets a little more complex than studying individual genes of plants. Most characteristics are the result of an intricate interplay between different genes, and how they impact the actual physical traits of the plant is complex. Until now, most breeders rely on sight and taste when testing breeds, which requires measuring the plants with tape and taking samples to try. This can be very time consuming, especially when this needs to be combined with the aforementioned genetic analysis.

So the team at UC Davis are looking for ways to use technology to speed up this process of physical measurement. According to the university’s Plant Research Centre director and researcher Charlie Brummer, “It’s the question we’re all asking. Our weather patterns are changing so fast, affecting everything from soil composition to what to expect in terms of weeds, diseases and pests. It can take 10 years to develop a new crop variety, even more for perennial plants. So we have to extrapolate what the future will bring — very, very quickly.” This is what the new system aims to do, according to Van Deynze: “We have the tools to respond quickly to disease and other threats. We’re hoping to reduce the time it takes to breed for disease resistance from eight years to two or three years.”

The way they hope to do this is with their new sensor-based technology that is integrated with tractor machinery which analyses crop appearance as it drives through a field, scanning up to 3 plants per minute. This is much more efficient than conventional manual methods. The physical measurement process, known as phenotyping, is the part of breeding that takes the most time, so the researchers are hoping the new devices speeds this overall breeding process by more than half.

This new device uses advanced cameras that take detailed measurements of plants to be rendered as three-dimensional models.

David Slaughter was the chief designer of the system. He is a professor and biological and agricultural engineer at the university. He said: “It can measure critical components like plant architecture and volume, leaf area and number, and temperature of the leaves, which helps breeders determine growth patterns and whether plants are suffering from heat or water stress.”

The importance of this was echoed by Brummer: “We need to look at both phenotyping and genotyping, and tie them together with crop-management strategies to optimize performance of new cultivars. Done correctly, we will be able to breed new cultivars more efficiently and rapidly today so they can perform well in the production environments of tomorrow.”

The new system will enable the efficiency needed to deal with the rapidly fluctuating conditions characteristic of today’s weather. “That’s revolutionary. Breeding is a numbers game. The more plants you can look at, the better your chances of finding ones that are truly exceptional.”” said Brummer of the speed of the device.

More information can be found at: UC Davis.




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