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Monday, March 4, 2024

UC Davis researchers use high-tech methods to improve agriculture in the face of climate change

New project hopes to combat effects of climate change in African countries by combining technology and agriculture

By MAYA SHYDLOWSKI — features@theaggie.org

UC Davis researchers in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences and College of Engineering are using plant genetics, artificial intelligence and three-dimensional (3D) modeling to develop new varieties of crops that will be able to withstand future climates. 

GEMINI stands for GxExM Innovation in Intelligence for climate adaptation. The acronym GxExM is a common abbreviation in agricultural science that relates plants’ features as a function of genotype, environment and management. The team is focusing on three major crops grown and consumed in various African countries: common beans, black-eyed peas, also known as cowpeas, and sorghum. The team hopes that with the help of this new technology, they will be able to predict the effects of future and ongoing changes in climate and then develop varieties that will be best suited to grow in those conditions. To do this, three researchers are utilizing their different strengths to tackle this issue.

Christine Diepenbrock, an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Sciences at UC Davis, has a lab that focuses on abiotic stress tolerance and improving the nutritional quality of crops through understanding crops’ genetics and genomics. Abiotic stresses are nonliving conditions like drought and high temperatures that may reduce a plant’s function. These are the types of stresses that the GEMINI project aims to address, especially as the world’s changing climate puts new and evolving stresses on agriculture

“I am on what we call the pre-breeding and genetics side of the project, where we are working with breeding partners in West and East Africa,” Diepenbrock said. “We are partnering with breeders in Senegal, Nigeria, Uganda and Tanzania on ways to further inform and improve the sorghum and grain legume, namely the common bean and cowpea breeding pipelines.”

Breeding is a huge industry worldwide, and working on staple crops like sorghum and grain legumes is crucial for feeding the world now and while the climate changes and population grows.

Meanwhile, Mason Earles, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering and Department of Viticulture and Enology, is working on a different aspect of the project. Earles is focusing on artificial intelligence (AI) sensors to speed up the existing phenotyping process for new potential crop varieties.

“The process of making measurements of different traits that are potentially desirable for breeding is called phenotyping,” Earles said. “That phenotyping process usually consists of some form of sensors, whether that be cameras […] or other types of sensors that measure various things that could be desirable. You want to find a way that you can speed up that phenotyping process.”

The way they want to speed up phenotyping is through machine learning and AI. Although most people do not think of agriculture as a high-tech industry, AI has helped growers and scientists improve the industry in a variety of sectors, including pest management and harvesting — which helps to feed the world’s growing population and makes it easier on farmers. Earles’ sensors will do that too. Using AI sensors will cut down on the time and cost of labor, as well as help assess traits that require special machines to measure.

Brian Bailey is the third leg of this team and an assistant professor in the Department of Plant Sciences, working on 3D modeling to predict how all the changing climate conditions will affect crops and what traits will be most resilient and necessary as the world faces these changes. 

“My portion is about developing the modeling, specifically biophysical modeling tools, to complement and enhance some of the things that Mason talked about,” Bailey said. “There’s really two veins of that. One of them is helping to more accurately and across a wider range of conditions extract traits from sensor measurements.”

Bailey is essentially using modeling to predict how different traits will affect the measurements from the AI sensors that Earles is working on. The modeling will also help predict how plants will react under different climate conditions that are expected to become the norm in these African countries.

“The other part is about predicting the future,” Bailey said, “so being able to say which traits will be advantageous or what we might breed for the future.”

Diepenbrock said that combining her breeding and genetics knowledge with the AI sensing from Earles and the 3D modeling from Bailey gives the GEMINI project a lot of promise. 

“I think that the tools that Brian and Mason bring to the table, separately and in collaboration with our team, is a really interesting combination,” Diepenbrock said. “It’s something new coming to the breeding process. I’ve worked with a different type of crop modeling, but I think the approach that Brian and the team have is very unique and gives us a lot of strengths that are going to be really interesting to deploy.”

The three researchers are also working with collaborators around the world to aid them in their endeavor. One of these is CGIAR, a global research organization whose mission is to build a “food-secure future” through research developments and collaborations. They have a large network of breeding and agronomy centers around the world that work on breeding crops to have increased abiotic stress tolerance. While the organization works on abiotic stress tolerance in staple and specialty crops, Diepenbrock said they have done some work on increasing the nutritional value of crops as well. Members of CGIAR will help test the new technologies as the GEMINI team develops them. 

In the U.S., the GEMINI team will collaborate with UC Riverside and the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service (ARS). Researchers at UC Riverside have conducted experiments and published a notable amount of work specifically on black-eyed peas, one of the crops GEMINI focuses on. The USDA-ARS has collected information and data on the common bean, another crop that the project is targeting. With the help of the various organizations and sources that will collaborate with the team, GEMINI has huge potential to make a big contribution to agricultural productivity and sustainability in West and East Africa.

So, why these crops and why these countries? While these crops may not be commonly consumed in the U.S., they are staple crops in other countries. Sorghum is a grain crop, part of the grass family like wheat and oats. Its grains are good sources of protein, iron and zinc, and it is commonly grown in West African countries instead of other cash crops like corn because of its ability to grow in dry and hot conditions. Sorghum stalks can also be used as fiber for materials. 

The black-eyed pea, or cowpea, is a legume crop that is popular in many African countries. It is high in protein and also withstands hot, dry conditions. Legume crops have additional benefits as they can fix nitrogen in the soil with the help of beneficial soil microorganisms. Similarly, common beans are also legumes and high in protein, and according to the USDA, the common bean is one of the most important food legumes around the world. All three of these crops provide consumers with high nutritive value, especially in terms of carbohydrates and proteins. These crops have the potential to not only feed but also nourish the people of these countries as long as agriculture can keep up with the growing population and withstand the changing climate. 

Many hot, dry countries in Africa are already feeling the crippling effects of climate change. According to the United Nations, West Africa is considered a “climate-change hotspot” that will experience the most dramatic effects in the near future. Growers are already dealing with rising temperatures and drier seasons, which are hurting crop growth and yield which will continue to impact food security and nutrition for people in those and surrounding areas. Breeding is one important tool for being able to keep yields of these crops high and growing efficiently now and in the future. 

New technologies and collaborations will be needed to feed people globally with the ever-changing conditions of the world, and the GEMINI team said they believe that, through collaborative partnerships, their work can have lasting effects on agriculture, food and nutritional security in Africa and beyond. 

Written by: Maya Shydlowski — features@theaggie.org


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