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Using big data to revolutionize agriculture

Population growth, climate change, and bioenergy crops are worldwide trends that are increasing the importance of using science to improve agriculture. Add to that land degradation, biodiversity loss, and slowing growth in crop yield, and the pressures on science are greater still.

The total amount of farmland in the world is finite and the UN estimates that by 2050 the global population will grow 47% to 8.9 billion. As living standards rise in emerging economies, demand for meat also rises, requiring greater amounts of land to provide animal feed. Image courtesy ezu-likegroup.com

The United Nations (UN) (department of economic and social affairs, population division) estimates that by 2050 the global population will grow 47% to 8.9 billion. Other scenarios predict growth as high as 10.6 billion. Just last week the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its second in a series of reports due out this year outlining the causes, effects, and solutions to global warming. Food security is an area of significant concern. Crop yields for maize, rice, and wheat are all affected in the run up to 2050, with around a tenth of projections showing losses greater than 25%.

Future food security relies on the development and production of plant and animal crops that are both robust and resilient. Research activities centering on the genomics, bioinformatics, and computational biology of plants and animals - as well as their pathogens - have been transformative, enabling scientists and organizations to better feed the world and improve the quality of food and animal crops.

These disciplines also involve very large data sets and computationally expensive analyses. On 9 April, from 1:15pm to 2:30pm mountain time (UTC-6:00), a diverse panel will convene at the Internet2 Global Summit in Denver, CO, US, to discuss progress in agro-bioscience enabling infrastructures, high-performance computing, collaborative tools, and high-speed networking.

"One of the best aspects of this panel is that it is phased, starting with the foundation of fundamental science and moving all the way to applied research," says Dan Taylor, director of business development organization at Internet2. "Whether it is plant, animal, livestock, or aquaculture, you will hear about developments and applications that are making changes rapidly, and improving agriculture output all over the world - some you can implement in the next season."

Invited speakers include: Howard-Yana Shapiro, Mars Inc.; David Bergvinson, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; Stephen Goff, iPlant Collaborative; Jane Silverthorne, US National Science Foundation (NSF); and George Wiggans, Agricultural Research Services (ARS) - a division of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The NSF-funded iPlant platform and cyberinfrastructure was developed nearly a decade ago, and continues to support a diverse group of plant science researchers. It brings together experts from various fields of biology and computer science that are equipped to harness rapidly expanding computational techniques and growing data sets to address the challenges of plant biology.

Scientists use the sequence of the cow genome to predict milk production in dairy cows with three times higher accuracy and at one-twentieth of the cost. They are also now able to provide the information at birth rather than at 5 years of age. This technology has revolutionized the dairy industry. Image courtesy USDA and Peggy Greb.

"Housed at the Texas Advanced Computing Center, iPlant is a well-known platform for plant and animal life sciences analysis and big data," adds Taylor. "They will be there to talk about both developments and opportunities."

Dairy cattle breeding takes into account vast amounts of data kept over long periods of time. "Most recently we've been working with genotypes of animals from gene chips that can evaluate the SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphisms)," says George Wiggans, acting chief scientific information officer at ARS, USDA.

"This has enabled us to really transform dairy cattle breeding. Bulls can be evaluated as soon as a sample can be taken, and a fairly accurate indication of their eventual daughter's performance can be determined. Big data is important; getting all of the genetic variants throughout the genome is really the holy grail. We're always looking to improve the accuracy of our estimates, and to answer biological questions as to what causes the differences in animals or what part of the difference is genetic."

"ARS has laboratories spread across the nation - many at land-grant colleges and institutions," notes Taylor. "The USDA is an incredible source of knowledge tied to animal health and genomics, and many of their scientists are co-located at Internet2 universities. It is a natural fit."

Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, believes investments in agriculture are the best weapons against hunger and poverty. The goal: Reduce hunger and poverty for millions of farming families in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia by increasing sustainable, agricultural productivity.

"The Gates Foundation brings a very practical perspective to the panel," explains Taylor. "They want to wipe out hunger in the next 20 years, so it's a very timely topic; they'll talk about information and communications technologies solving real problems."

The panel, scheduled Wednesday, April 9, at 1:15pm mountain time (UTC-6:00), will be available via live webcast.

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