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Growing Virtual Plants Could Help Farmers Boost Their Crops

20:00 EDT 21 Aug 2017 | Meridian Institute

Crops “in silico” could help farmers grow sugarcane in a matter of seconds, not days or weeks. These crops flourish on the computer screen, and are part of a new movement in agricultural science in which researchers develop highly accurate, computer-simulated crops to help speed up selective breeding. Eberhard Voit, a biologist at the Georgia Institute of Technology, United States, say the ages-old strategy of handpicking and replanting plant varieties that thrive is just too slow. “We need a more targeted approach,” he says. Especially, this article notes, when our global population is expected to skyrocket to 9.6 billion by 2050. The “in silico” approach allows scientists to visualize certain crops and manipulate data to see which factors result in the fastest-growing, most drought- and pest-resistant plants possible. The next hurdle, say researchers, is how to get different simulations to talk to one another. Since researchers conduct their simulations on different software, many of the programs cannot run simultaneously and produce a plant that makes sense. The National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) is now working to build a software framework that could combine all the individual crop models into one plant displaying multiple programmable features. But, says Jonathan Lynch, a plant physiologist at The Pennsylvania State University, the field needs to grow substantially, especially in the U.S., to get to the next phase. Europe, he added, is more willing to invest in crop modeling. The young field, he says, “is going to become more important in years ahead. This is the frontier [of] biology.”

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