Accelerating Plant Breeding and Optimizing Farming Practices Through High-Performance Computing

Research focus: The initial goals of this research will be on digitizing crop phenotypes (the observable characteristics controlled by genetics and environment) to accelerate plant breeding and creating digital technologies to improve agricultural practices and local agri-business in the developing world.

This science area is highly trans-disciplinary and will have a profound effect on crop science, plant breeding and agricultural practice. The challenge will be bringing together a cohesive multi-disciplinary team required to build this area for GIFS. This research will provide a digital signature for plant phenotypes, and advanced image analysis software utilizing high-performance computation will convert plant breeding from an analogue-to-digital activity to a digital-to-digital activity, allowing genotypes to be linked to phenotypes computationally.

Research Areas

  • Digitize phenotyping to enhance plant breeding.
  • Use high-performance computing to improve farming practices in local agri-business.
  • Develop new information technology (IT) agricultural tools for use in developing nations.

This research will be supported by the valuable expertise in breeding and genomics that already exists at the University of Saskatchewan and the bioinformatics unit at the National Research Council Canada (NRC) in Saskatoon, in collaboration with GIFS. With additional investment, this unit could expand into a phenoinformatics centre.

Our main target crops will be those that are of economic importance to Western Canada and developing countries, such as wheat, canola, lentils, and other pulses and legumes. Discoveries in wheat will be channeled to rice and maize, and oilseeds like canola will be propagated in other Brassica and non-Brassica oleaginous crops.

Impacts on Food Security

Information technology plays a huge role in all human activity: healthcare, finance, education, recreation. Agriculture and food production are no different.

Large-scale integrated data acquisition and management systems will affect everything from plant breeding and soil science to automated on-farm practices. Critical technologies include genomics, phenomics and bioinformatics, GIS/GPS and high-precision satellite imaging.

The effects on crop cultivation will be tremendous. At the field level, data acquisition through imaging, sensing and agri-metrics will result in databases from which trends and correlations will emerge. These will be useful to individual farmers planning an optimal (and sustainable) cultivation strategy and to national and international efforts to adapt crops to a changing climate.

The widespread use of smartphones in developing nations also provides opportunities for improvements in agricultural practice. For example, smartphone photos and online plant pathology databases could help farmers in Africa identify plant pests and diseases and determine inexpensive ways of addressing the problem.

New in Digital and Computational Agriculture

The U of S was recently awarded $37.2 million through the Canada First Research Excellence Fund (CFREF) to create a field- and greenhouse-based plant phenotyping centre. This work will be highly collaborative, involving the Canadian Light Source, Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation, NRC, and Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada, and will be multi-disciplinary with researchers from a wide range of disciplines, including plant and soil science, computer science, engineering, public policy, and nutrition. This initiative comprises three major functions: crop phenotyping, image acquisition technologies and computational methods for image storage and analytics.

GIFS will manage this university-wide effort to assemble required infrastructure and human resources. In addition to capitalizing on resources through existing university labs and organizations, the program calls for recruiting into five new faculty positions, as well as approximately 25 post-doctoral fellows across campus. This will likely lead to a further 20 researchers directly within GIFS and over 30 affiliated with GIFS throughout the campus.

The Global Impact of Digital Agriculture

Less than 20% of global acreage today is managed using precision (digital) agriculture technologies.

In the past 20 years, the speed of genome sequencing has leapt from around 10,000 bases per day per machine to more than one billion per day, thanks to advances in computing power.

Advances in mobile device optics have allowed the introduction of remote digital phenotyping via smartphones and tablets.