By 2050, the world will need to produce 70 percent more food than it produces today. To meet the demand, we’ll need new generations of plants that can ward off diseases, adapt to hot and dry weather, thrive in poor soil conditions, and deliver exponentially better yields. Plant scientists at Iowa State are meeting the challenge with a big data approach in three areas:

  • Cracking the genetic code to identify the functions of specific plant genes;
  • Determining how genes are expressed in the plant’s phenotype – characteristics, such as growth patterns, and reactions to variations in temperature, moisture, and soil conditions; and
  • Incorporating new genes or adapting genetic sequences to alter plant behavior.

“It’s going to totally change the landscape to be able to improve traits in crop plants and introduce those quickly,” said Marty Spalding, director of the Iowa State University-led Crop Bioengineering Consortium.

Pat Schnable, director of Iowa State University’s Plant Sciences Institute, said work includes studying the interaction of individual genotypes in a wide range of environmental conditions. The institute also uses robots to collect daily plant data from fields in different regions of the country.

“We have the power of taking very large data sets and computationally derive something,” Schnable said. “Then we start to see things we can change that we may not have perceived without these data sets.”

Change already is occurring. An Iowa State team led by Stephen Howell, professor of genetics, development, and cell biology, has identified gene sequences that activate survival mechanisms in plants during periods of stress. The study has huge implications for developing crops that can tolerate hotter temperatures and drought or resist disease.