We talk about cloudbased computing a lot and while farmers may benefit the real advancement may be in plant breeding with more key information available to an increasing group of plant breeders

We talk about cloud-based computing a lot, and while farmers may benefit, the real advancement may be in plant breeding with more key information available to an increasing group of plant breeders.

Putting deep genetic data to work

Covering technology is pretty straightforward, provided you understand what it all means. Recently we shared the story of the use of CRISPR-Cas in the development of new commercial waxy corn lines over at DuPont Pioneer. It's groundbreaking stuff, but it's just one tool that can help speed breeding, the key is identifying just the right genes to add, or subtract, in the genomic editing process. Turns out there's a new tool for seed developers that could do just that.

Cloud computing is working its way into a lot of market sectors, including high-tech plant breeding. CropOS - a Benson Hill Biosystems tool - will allow plant breeders to enhance their genetic ID capability. (Photo: Varijanta/Thinkstock)

For farmers this is heady stuff, happening deep in the lab a few years before you see new seeds, but long term knowing about these tools can help you be assured breeders will be able to enhance crops for improved traits faster than ever.

They call the tool CropOS - like OS means operating system - and it's a cloud based tool that builds on work that Benson Hill Biosystems has been doing for years. "We been looking at corn lines and other crop lines to evaluate increased photosynthesis and we began building a computational systems platform and use that platform to predict how we could manipulate metabolism in plants," explains Matthew Crisp, CEO at Benson Hill Biosystems. And that computer information has grown for four years until it became quite detailed.

We talked to Crisp about CropOS to get a better handle on just what it might mean for the future of crop genetics. And he explains that the platform they developed allowed them to identify a wide array of different targets in crops including disease resistance and drought tolerance as key examples. The challenge for the crop breeder is finding that gene, or groups of genes, that can make a difference.

Crisp explains that often a trait in a plant is governed by more than one gene, which makes finding that group difficult, but also makes breeding the final plant difficult too. However, as new technologies come forward offering much more precise methods, having information for plant breeding testing gains value. "Often it is a complex trait, and there can be many genes and pathways to explore," Crisp explains. "This is a tool that makes [the breeder] more powerful and have the ability to isolate those that impact the crop."

CropOS exists in the cloud and it effectively allows a breeder to enter their digital genomic information into the system. Once there, the system helps them decide which direction to take on the path toward creating a final plant. "We can provide them guidance on what will advance their breeding program," Crisp explains. "You've heard about 5,000 announcements about tech and Big Data, and our opinion is that an area where you can utilize big data is through advanced analytics more so on the genetic side than the production side," he says.

This is a powerful cloud-based data base that can essentially provide a plant breeder the right genetic targets in weeks rather than years. Of course they still have to breed the genetics back into the elite hybrid, but identification is the first step toward progress. If CropOS offers that kind of speed-up for breeders, the end result for farmers is faster availability of money making traits like disease resistance, or drought resistance.

This is not a product you'll be buying to use on the farm, but your seed suppliers may be using it. Benson Hill likes to work in partnership with companies, and Crisp sees an opportunity for this program to help smaller companies without the same resources as larger firms. This cloud-based tool makes high-tech decision making available to firms that may not have had the cash to build their own genomic databases, which could impact diversity in plant breeding too. "This notion of democratizing innovation in ag...societally this has to happen, as an industry the time to do it is now," he concludes.

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