Collaboration of experts hope to turbocharge development of more resilient crops

A new project is aiming to put cutting-edge research tools in the hands of plant breeders, providing access to genomic resources to accelerate the development of more resilient and climate-resistant crops.

Science will help crop breeding

Science will help crop breeding

The collaboration brings together the Earlham Institute, IBM Research, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Hartree Centre, and RAGT Seeds UK, with the aim of simplifying and speeding up the transition of cutting-edge genome research tools, workflows, and software into industrial applications.

The one-year Excelerate project is part of the Hartree National Centre for Digital Innovation (HNCDI) programme from STFC, designed to close the gap between academic and industrial applications of digital technologies, such as artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing.

Innovative life science research

The UK is home to some of the most exciting and innovative life science research, the collaboration pointed out. Institutions are pioneering the use of new technologies to overcome issues of scale and complexity in data-intensive bioscience, such as developing approaches that could be used to accelerate crop breeding in line with EU safety and ethical regulations. 

At the Earlham Institute, this includes crop pangenomes and the tools required to analyse them, developed through its Decoding Biodiversity strategic programme, funded by BBSRC.

However the transition of this knowledge into usable technology - and its uptake by industry - remains a significant challenge, according to Professor Anthony Hall, project lead and head of plant genomics at the Earlham Institute. “Modern plant breeding practices are based on understanding and then using genetic resources - made possible by digital innovations - that breeders can incorporate into their programmes,” he explained.

“Bioinformatics and machine-learning techniques are playing an increasingly important role in deciphering genetic diversity. But they bring significant overheads in terms of the bioinformatics skills and computing power required to develop and implement new workflows.”

Cloud-based tools

The new project brings together leaders from academia and industry to provide cloud-based tools that can be easily adopted by plant-breeding companies to support the development of next-generation crops with greater climate resilience and improved nutritional properties.

The Earlham Institute is working with IBM Research and STFC to develop the new cloud-based tools - including those optimised for exploring plant pangenomes - which RAGT Seeds UK will be road testing.

Dr Rachel Rusholme-Pilcher is a senior postdoctoral researcher at the Earlham Institute, and has played a central role in developing the workflows that will be used in this partnership. “The tools we’re developing and optimising will allow plant breeders to interact with their complex datasets in a way they simply couldn’t before,” she said. “It should provide new information they can rapidly incorporate into their existing breeding programmes.

“We’ll also be using this project to look at how we can embed the adoption of FAIR approaches - the movement to make all research data Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable. Making this kind of research FAIR can be a challenge but these collaborations will hopefully change that - transforming the impact of emerging technologies.”

Excelerate is one strand of a number of projects from HNCDI embedding AI solutions across UK industry. To both accelerate and simplify the adoption of compute intensive bioinformatics workflows in the plant breeding industry, this project will use an on-demand, scalable, Hybrid Cloud delivery model.