National Science Foundation awards grant extension to continue development of high-throughput measurements of plant traits


MANHATTAN — The National Science Foundation has given a big thumbs up to Kansas State University research on determining the most promising plant traits to help increase food production.

The NSF is awarding a creativity supplement for “A Field-Based High-Throughput Phenotyping Platform for Plant Genetics,” a project led by Jesse Poland, assistant professor of plant pathology and assistant director of the Wheat Genetics Resource Center at Kansas State University.

Originally funded for $768,054 in 2013, the supplement will extend the project for two more years with additional funding of $871,561. The NSF granted the extension for special creativity based on outstanding scientific/technical progress achieved under the grant.

“These awards are relatively rare and are reserved to award exemplary research accomplishment,” said Paul Lowe, associate vice president for research and director of PreAward Services at Kansas State University.

“The amount of this award indicates the level of confidence NSF has in Poland’s project,” Lowe said.

Plant breeders and geneticists need to understand important traits in crop plants and develop varieties that they think will exhibit those traits. But large-scale field trials are the ultimate test of whether plant traits, also called phenotypes, emerge as predicted. Plant height is one example of a measurement breeders need to gather, and hand measurements are slow and inconsistent. Faster, more accurate measurements of plant traits are needed to accelerate the breeding process that helps determine the best varieties to help feed a growing world population.

Poland’s group has worked to solve those problems by tailoring tools from precision agriculture to measure plants in research plots. They developed a small roving GPS-guided phenotyper equipped with cameras and sensors. As the phenotyper moves through the field, it can gather and analyze data quickly. The process is scalable, and it may help solve a serious bottleneck in plant breeding and genetics: As DNA sequencing has undergone a technology revolution, it has become easier to obtain genetic information than to measure plant trait information. Without the latter, researchers are slower to develop prediction models for the success of other varieties and traits and are left unable to verify models quickly.

“The data set is out of balance,” Poland said.

“If we can do a better job of more accurately measuring a larger number of lines, we can do a directly better job of selecting, and we can build better prediction models,” he said.

The creativity supplement will help Poland and his collaborators from the University of Arizona, the Maricopa Agricultural Center and the U.S. Department of Agriculture teach others to use the equipment by offering workshops.

“If we’re really going to make a difference in how we do plant genetics research, we have to think about how we can get high-throughput phenotyping implemented across the research community,” he said. “We have to get the ideas pushed out and build the human capital side.”

Aside from allowing wider adoption of the phenotyping tools, Poland said the ability to gather and analyze more data could change researchers’ approaches.

“We have more precision and can measure at more time points, so we can rethink our experiments,” he said. “If we can actually measure effectively, how can we redesign our experiments to ask questions we couldn’t ask before?”

He’s pleased with NSF’s vote of confidence.

“It’s really great. Initially, it was sort of a high-risk project, and we got the effort in and things developed, and now we have an opportunity to quickly carry it forward with additional funding,” Poland said.

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