Innovative Workshop Held on Crop Improvement Technologies

Friday, May 16, 2014

High-throughput phenotyping, a new area of research, is key to achieving progress in crop improvements. And in order to make future advancements, there is a need for training graduate students and scientists in this emerging field.

"Over the past decade, we have seen phenomenal advancements in crop genomics enabled by developments in high-throughput DNA sequencing. This automated technology in the laboratory has made understanding the genetics of crop plants very tractable," said Jesse Poland, assistant professor in Plant Pathology at Kansas State University.  Unfortunately, these same advancements in high-throughput automation have not been realized in the field for the physical appearances of the crop such as height, disease resistance or grain yield.

Thirty-five researchers, graduate students and industry representatives from around the world participated in an innovative field-based phenotyping workshop at the Maricopa Agricultural Center in Maricopa, Ariz., April 7-10, 2014.

"The diversity of participants was a pleasant surprise," noted Jeff White, USDA-ARS plant physiologist. "The breadth of disciplines and institutions suggests that interest in field phenomics is even greater than we had originally expected and that potential applications extend well beyond plant breeding and genetics."

Funded through a National Science Foundation grant, the workshop was organized by researchers from the University of Arizona, Kansas State University and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service. Clear skies in southern Arizona, combined with soil and weather conditions that provide long crop growing seasons, make the region ideal for developing and applying field-based high-throughput phenotyping technologies.

The four-day training workshop provided opportunities for participants to acquire a foundation in principles of field-based high-throughput phenotyping.

"Phenotypic measurements are still largely collected by hand. If we want to measure plant height, we get a yardstick and head to the field. The trouble with this approach is that evaluating plants in the field becomes very time-consuming and labor-intensive," said Poland, who is principal investigator on the NSF project.

"This limits the size of populations we can evaluate for genetic studies, as well as the number of new candidate varieties we can test in breeding programs. Overall, we need automated, high-throughput remote sensing technologies that can be applied for field research," said Poland.

This is an area where the contributions of agricultural engineers are key in advancing field-based high-throughput phenotyping. "We work in different fronts: from adapting power units to making sensor deployment in the field more efficient, to integrating sensor technology like GPS positioning and crop canopy spectral/thermal sensing. There are many technical challenges to solve, but this is rewarding work," says Pedro Andrade-Sanchez, a precision ag specialist at the University of Arizona and a collaborator on this project.

Eleven instructors from UA, K-State, USDA-ARS, and the iPlant Collaborative led lectures and field-based exercises at MAC, a UA College of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences-affiliated agricultural experiment station located about 30 miles south of Phoenix.

Topics covered in the workshop included electronic field instrumentation, vehicle configurations, georeferencing, data management and inverse modeling. Lectures were matched with hands-on demonstrations and field exercises, taking advantage of winter-sown experiments at Maricopa, Ariz.

The first three days included daily rounds of lectures, field exercises with vehicles and data processing. On the last day, teams of participants presented results and had an "open-lab" session where they could pursue specific interests or concerns with instructors. Training materials will be publicly available through the project website.

A second phenotyping workshop will be offered at MAC in 2015.

For more information on field phenomics and future workshops, visit the link below.

Pedro Andrade-Sanchez