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Collaborative Initiative to Accelerate the Development of Resilient Crops

A new project seeks to empower plant breeders with cutting-edge research tools and genomic resources with the goal of rapidly developing more resilient, climate-resistant crops.

Photo by CHUTTERSNAP on Unsplash

The collaboration unites the Earlham Institute, IBM Research, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Hartree Centre, and RAGT Seeds UK. Its objective is to streamline and accelerate the implementation of leading-edge genome research tools, workflows, and software for practical use within the agricultural industry.

The one-year Excelerate project, a component of STFC's Hartree National Centre for Digital Innovation (HNCDI) programme, aims to bridge the divide between academic and industrial applications of digital technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing.

Driving Innovation in Life Sciences

As highlighted by the collaboration, the UK is a global leader in life science research. National institutions are at the forefront of utilising new technologies to address challenges associated with the scale and complexity of data-intensive bioscience. These endeavors include developing approaches potentially applicable in accelerating crop breeding while adhering to EU safety and ethical standards.

The Earlham Institute exemplifies such efforts with its crop pangenome research and associated analytical tools, supported by BBSRC funding via its Decoding Biodiversity strategic programme.

Transitioning Knowledge into Applications

Professor Anthony Hall, project lead and head of plant genomics at the Earlham Institute, emphasizes a key challenge: “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.

"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 for Enhanced Crop Development

This project unites academic and industry leaders to create cloud-based solutions readily adoptable by plant-breeding companies. These tools are intended to enable the development of next-generation crops boasting superior climate resilience and nutritional value.

The Earlham Institute, IBM Research, and STFC are developing new cloud-based tools, including those optimised for plant pangenome exploration, which RAGT Seeds UK will be field-testing.

Dr Rachel Rusholme-Pilcher, a senior postdoctoral researcher at the Earlham Institute, states: “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. It should provide new information they can rapidly incorporate into their existing breeding programmes.” She further notes the project's focus on adopting FAIR (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, and Reusable) principles in research.

Excelerate represents one of HNCDI's many initiatives aimed at integrating AI solutions within UK industry. This particular project utilises an on-demand, scalable Hybrid Cloud delivery model to accelerate and simplify the implementation of compute-intensive bioinformatics workflows within the plant breeding sector.


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