The “Genomes to Fields” Initiative
Agriculture faces the enormous challenge of efficiently and sustainably producing a safe, dependable food supply for a growing world population. Meeting this challenge requires the development and management of crop varieties that will perform well in spite of increased weather variability. To address this challenge, an ambitious widescale plant phenotyping initiative is proposed which will expand our understanding of the interacting roles of crop genomes and crop environments (including weather and management practices) on crop performance. By improving our ability to predict crop performance in diverse environments, this initiative will enhance our capability to develop new varieties and to manage the effects of weather variability on crop productivity. The Genomes to Fields Initiative serves as the foundation for such a national crop phenotyping initiative.
Building on prior public funding of plant genome research and operating at a scale necessary to maintain U.S. competitiveness, this Initiative aims to create an interdisciplinary framework for understanding and managing crop performance. Genomes to Fields will not create physical infrastructure but will instead develop a living infrastructure of researchers from many disciplines and a network of field phenotyping sites. The Initiative will generate a large, multi-state, multi-year publicly available dataset of corn phenotype data that will enable researchers to identify connections between variation in heredity material and the environment and the resulting phenotypes (i.e., crop performance). A resource of this type has never before been available to public-sector researchers. A critical part of the Genomes to Fields Initiative is fostering interdisciplinary research collaborations among crop scientists and engineers and computational scientists. The engineers will develop new technologies (e.g., robots and sensors) that will make informative high-throughput phenotyping possible. The computational scientists will develop new computational approaches to analyze the resulting very large (big data) datasets of phenotypes and environmental data and thereby facilitate an understanding of gene function and to address fundamental problems of agricultural productivity. The Initiative’s interdisciplinary network of scientists and datasets will provide an excellent training platform for students studying agriculture, genetics and engineering.
Although initially focused on corn because it is an ideal model for these studies, other crop communities are expected to join in the Genomes to Fields Initiative.
Genomes to Fields will benefit farmers, consumers and society as a whole. Improved crops and production practices will benefit farmers. Further, it is expected that many of the tools developed for this initiative will eventually be deployed on farms to monitor and manage crops. At the societal level, this research will lead to a more sustainable and secure food production system with improved nutrient and water utilization in a time of restricted availability of land, water and nutrients, and changing weather conditions.