Artificial intelligence is guiding plant breeding and helping to speed the development of crops that scientists hope can better cope with devastating drought and heat.
Why is this important: Droughts in China, Europe, East Africa and North America are damaging crops and contributing to food insecurity and hunger crises around the world.
- Parts of the U.S. Corn Belt are experiencing extreme or exceptional drought. In Nebraska, 35% of the corn crop is considered to be in poor or very poor condition.
- Some of these extended dry spells are due to human-caused climate change, others are made worse – but all together they provide a window into the drier and warmer future predicted for some regions.
- These climate changes and growing global food insecurity are pushing breeders to develop more resilient plants faster.
What is happening: 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 plant breeders.
- Plant breeders use them to analyze data that reflects what is known about plant biology – for example, how high or how fast a plant grows, and whether it can withstand hot or dry conditions in an area.
- This data can help AI predict the combination of genes – and the genes that regulate them – that can improve a plant’s tolerance without reducing yield.
- Instead of crossing plants for generations to find the best ones, breeders can use AI to more quickly predict which genetics will produce desired traits.
There are compromises, however, between how much water a plant uses and how much grain, corn, or other produce a plant can produce – and debate how far apart breeders can go with the two.
- AI can “help breeders navigate this complex maze,” says Charlie Messina, a professor of predictive breeding at the University of Florida.
Details: In a recent study, Messina and colleagues assessed how drought-tolerant maize hybrids bred with the help of AI grew in different water conditions.
- Contrary to previous research, they report that hybrids bred for better drought tolerance had better yields. (The hybrid is commercially available from Corteva, and company scientists participated in the study. Messina previously worked for the company.)
- The scientists also found that the hybrid plants had a smaller difference in yield under normal and dry conditions, meaning they produced a more reliable amount of corn under a range of conditions. One of the challenges of climate change is hydrological extremes, which accentuate both droughts and heavy rains.
But, but, but… A study published earlier this year found that corn yield gains were largely due to climate and improved soil and crop management, not plant genetics.
- “This is an important debate because it can influence investments – public and private – in technologies to deal with drought and climate change,” Messina said.
- “If we don’t find the cause of the problem, as a society we may be investing in the wrong solutions,” he says.
Potatoes are another staple around the world — and plants are very sensitive to heat.
- AlphaFold, a deep learning system developed by DeepMind that can predict protein structure, was used along with other tools to study the genes and proteins involved in potato response to high temperatures. (The founders of AlphaFold today won the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.)
The big picture: Genetics is only one factor in crop yield and resilience.
- There is also the environment of a field and how its soil and water are managed and potentially suitable for a crop plant.
- Farmers are under their own pressure to produce a certain amount of a crop and may run out of resources.
Messina says its goal is to integrate information on the genetics of a plant, the environment of a field and the management of a crop.
- Ultimately, he wants to “move from thinking about a crop’s drought tolerance to thinking about crops as systems for combating climate change and improving nutrition and food security. “.
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