University of Illinois

US: New technology for screening crop traits

Like many industries, big data is driving innovations in agriculture. Scientists seek to analyse  thousands of plants to pinpoint genetic tweaks that can boost crop production—historically, a Herculean task. To drive progress toward higher-yielding crops, a team from the University of Illinois is revolutionizing the ability to screen plants for key traits across an entire field. In two recent studies—published in the Journal of Experimental Botany (JExBot) and Plant, Cell & Environment (PC&E)—they are making this technology more accessible.

“For plant scientists, this is a major step forward,” said co-first author Katherine Meacham-Hensold, a postdoctoral researcher at Illinois who led the physiological work on both studies. “Now we can quickly screen thousands of plants to identify the most promising plants to investigate further using another method that provides more in-depth information but requires more time. Sometimes knowing where to look is the biggest challenge, and this research helps address that."

This work is supported by Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE), an international research project that is creating more productive food crops by improving photosynthesis, the natural process all plants use to convert sunlight into energy and yields. RIPE is sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the U.S. Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR), and the U.K. Government's Department for International Development (DFID).

The RIPE project analyzes hundreds of plants each field season. The traditional method used to measure photosynthesis requires as much as 30 minutes per leaf. While newer technologies have increased efficiency to as little as 15 seconds per plant, the study published in JExBot has increased efficiency by an order of magnitude, allowing researchers to capture the photosynthetic capacity of hundreds to thousands of plants in a research plot.

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