A Monthly Seeds of Innovation Feature
In this first of a monthly interview series to highlight innovation in food and agriculture, take a peek inside the lab of research geneticist Ed Buckler, the inaugural Winner of the National Academy of Sciences Prize in Food and Agriculture established by FFAR and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. FFAR’s second employee Madeleine O’Connor set out to discover what inspired Dr. Buckler to begin his globally significant scientific career and what he sees on the horizon for plant and animal breeding and other opportunities for innovation in agriculture.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a scientist?
I started computer programming when I was about eight years old. By the time I got to high school I realized that genetics was life’s programming language and that seemed a lot more interesting to me than just regular computer programming. I was probably hooked on genetics by the time I was 16.
I received my undergraduate degree in Biology and Archeology and my Ph.D. in Biology. Archeology introduced me to how people around the world produce food and how that has changed over time. Agricultural genetics was the area where I thought one could make the biggest contribution. The field has a tremendous potential to address many health and environmental issues, such as food security and nutrition, environmental sustainability, preserving water resources, reducing pollution from agricultural processes, soil erosion, as well as giving us the tools to address issues in the future. In particular, we can reduce the pressure on the environment by developing higher productivity crops grown on less land.
Tell us about the work that went into first producing the vitamin-A fortified maize and then seeing it used in the field.
In order to make any of these ideas a reality it takes at least half a dozen people spearheading the project. A lot of people contributed to this.
It started out with my colleague Torbert Rocheford. He came to me at a meeting and explained some of the Vitamin A deficiency problems in Sub-Saharan Africa, where it affects more than 30 million children and is the major cause of blindness for children in the region. Torbert asked if I wanted to collaborate on the project. My group had already been building the tools necessary to find out what natural alleles can be attributed to which traits. We collaborated for a couple years and, building upon about a decade’s worth of my group and other’s previous work, we were able to identify two important genes and two alleles that together produced a 15-20 fold increase in Vitamin A in maize. After we found these key variants, HarvestPlus and CIMMYT started working together to take that knowledge and deploy it in Zambia. A lot of people played big roles in making this happen.
What does the new NAS Prize in Food and Agriculture Sciences mean for the scientific community?
I think the most important thing the Prize does is it raises the profile of food and agricultural science. Food and agriculture supports everyone on the planet, but because of the success of research and breeding in agriculture, a lot of people in the developed world rarely think about it. It has profound implications day in and day out for our livelihood, our environment and it’s important for the wellbeing of billions of people, as well as for political stability globally. This new Prize is a great opportunity to highlight scientists participating in this area where there wasn’t before.
What opportunities do you see for the Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research to move the needle on critical food and agriculture challenges?
I think we need to build more of an innovation-based agricultural system where there are opportunities for modest or small companies to work with the public sector to innovative or create new products. FFAR has opportunities there.
We really don’t understand the biology behind how organisms interact with their environment, whether that’s a corn plant or an animal. I think FFAR gives us the opportunity to develop innovative projects in that arena.
I think we also need to think of new protein systems. I have seen interesting possibilities for shellfish – particularly mussels –as a potentially viable and sustainable protein source. Models to produce, process and ship mussels have shown promise and may be one way to increase nutrition and protein sources around the world.
What are you working on now and what’s next in this field?
I am pushing for people to start considering that the tools and technologies we have helped develop in maize can be applied to hundreds of other species, whether those are specialty crops, tree species, or even shellfish as a protein source. What keeps people from applying many of these methods is the cost, but the cost of sequencing a genome in the next couple years might be as little as five dollars. We need to push for building bioinformatics to help breeders in decision support and make these systems available if we are to have large-scale impact beyond the leading crops of the world.
Which other areas of food and agriculture would you say are ripe for innovation?
The application of machine learning to genomics and to agriculture science really has tremendous opportunity. We work with large data sets that are extremely complex and we can do a lot of very practical, very useful things by applying machine learning to these massive data sets.
It turns out that in many of the big genomes—such as maize and humans—only about 5 or 10% of the genome is doing the majority of the work. It’s taken millions and in the case of human genetics hundreds of millions, of dollars to really unravel the process by which genes give rise to particular traits, whether it’s human disease or the size of an ear of corn. As we’re starting be able to develop machine learning tools that have been trained on these large data sets we can apply these methods to various other species. For example, these lessons would allow geneticist and breeders to develop a better tasting grape or even a better, novel tasting shellfish.
These models can deliver 80-90 percent of the value from work that used to cost millions of dollars, which we can now do for less than a tenth the cost.
Advice for young scientists?
This boundary between information science and big data with agriculture is likely to keep expanding over the coming decades. I would recommend that anyone interested in science gain computer programming skills, as well as become proficient in data analytics. Data sets are only going to get bigger over time and we must have the skills to harness vast amounts of data to address real-world issues. This knowledge base is just as important as getting out into the field with the plants – those that understand both big data and field will be the most successful at addressing the real world problems.