Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research Awards Grant to University of Illinois Researcher Developing Cutting Edge Plant Simulation Models

Crops in silico project will accelerate scientists’ ability to adapt crops for environmental challenges

Matthew Turk and Amy Marshall-Colón. Photo courtesy of University of Illinois.

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) has awarded Amy Marshall-Colón, Assistant Professor of Plant Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, $274,000 to continue her research in support of Crops in silico (Cis), a project to develop a suite of virtual plant models with potential to help resolve a growing gap between food supply and demand in the face of a changing climate.

Environments around the world are changing faster than traditional crop breeding can develop new plant varieties adapted for environmental challenges including drought, flooding, and increased ambient carbon dioxide. Fully realized, Cis will give crop researchers a tool to examine the effects of those challenges on a molecular, cellular, and organ level within a plant to more quickly and accurately determine the best targets for genetic engineering.

“Science is accelerating faster than ever before, and the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research is committed to harnessing cutting-edge science for the benefit of the agricultural system,” FFAR Executive Director Sally Rockey said. “Crops in silico will integrate some of today’s most advanced plant models, providing new and exciting insights into how a plant functions that will undoubtedly accelerate our ability to improve plants. I look forward to the results of this exciting project.”

The ability to computationally mimic the growth, development, and response of crops to the environment will allow researchers to conduct more experiments than can realistically be achieved in the field, meaning more knowledge will be generated in a shorter time period.

Marshall-Colón will collaborate with Stephen P. Long, the Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology; Matthew Turk, Assistant Professor of Information Sciences, Assistant Research Professor of Astronomy and National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) Research Scientist;, Christine Kirkpatrick, Executive Director of the National Data Service and Jonathan Lynch, University Distinguished Professor of Plant Science at Penn State University.

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research matches every research dollar granted with non-federal funds. Support from the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign awarded to Long and NCSA funding awarded to Turk will provide matching funds to support the Cis team and double the impact of the FFAR grant.

The team will work to integrate above- and below-ground models of plants to create never-before-seen “whole views.” Then, they will subject these newly built virtual plants to computer-simulated extreme growing conditions and compare the model’s predicted plant reaction to observed responses from field studies. This will help improve the model’s accuracy.

Beyond a technological breakthrough, the Cis team also aims to achieve a research community shift.

“We believe Crops in silico will unite largely isolated efforts into a connected and collaborative community that can take full advantage of advances in computation science and mechanistic understanding of plant processes and their responses to the environment,” Marshall-Colón said.

Marshall-Colón and Long are iSEE Faculty Affiliates and NCSA Faculty Fellows.

Learn more: cropsinsilico.org.

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