Scientists Use Innovation to Accelerate Seed Technologies
Potter analyzes complex data to help breeders make better decisions in seed product development. Kelliher’s breakthroughs in reproductive biology have accelerated the genome-editing process, so seed technologies can be made available to farmers in a shorter time frame. Both are making giant leaps forward in their fields by using leading-edge methods.
Turning Data Into Knowledge
As the global head of Analytics & Data Sciences at Syngenta, Potter analyzes data to determine which seed products will be the best match for the company’s customers. She compares her work to how Netflix® uses data to make recommendations to its subscribers.
“Breeders have to predict which genetics will perform best in different environments to meet our customers’ varied needs,” Potter says. “It’s like what Netflix does every day when it’s helping customers figure out which movies or shows are going to become new favorites.”
Potter and her team of mathematicians, geneticists and genomicists turn biological and environmental data into knowledge that can help researchers make decisions throughout the research and development process, from product discovery to commercial launch. During discovery, their recommendations can help researchers discover the best genes for producing desirable traits—via genome editing—with algorithms, which combine data, ranging from the small-scale interactions of genes in a cell to the large-scale effects on plant performance in the field.
“Breeders have to predict which genetics will perform best in different environments to meet our customers’ varied needs. It’s like what Netflix does every day when it’s helping customers figure out which movies or shows are going to become new favorites.”
"We also use algorithms to figure out where to place our trials, so that when we do develop our products, they are growing in environments that match the conditions our customers experience,” Potter says.
When a product is ready to launch, algorithms help predict the optimal market for each variety, so the seeds will meet the agronomic needs of the customers in that particular location.
Descriptive, Predictive and Prescriptive Analytics
Potter and her team analyze data in three ways, depending on what they are trying to accomplish. Descriptive analytics show past performance data, which can also offer insight for future projects.
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Predictive analytics aim to determine seed performance in particular areas. With limited land available for conducting trials, predictive analytics can help breeders narrow down which hybrids will perform best when tested in certain environments.
Potter says Syngenta is moving toward using prescriptive analytics to find the best seed hybrids that can perform consistently for the next several years—a process she calls “designing the future.”
“You’re not just predicting performance, but you’re also able to use analytics to tell you how to do something,” she says. “It helps answer the question, ‘How am I going to get a stable yield that’s going to give a reliable performance in the field this year and several years out?’”
Just as Netflix continues to change its algorithms to better meet the needs of its subscribers, Potter sees her team’s work evolving to help design products that are more specific to customer needs.
“For the longer term, it’s really about developing these prescriptive analytics that are going to design the genetics of the future faster and more precisely, so we can better meet customers’ needs more quickly,” Potter says.
Improving Genome Editing
Another powerful technology that allows Syngenta breeders to improve seed performance is genome editing; but of the hundreds of commercial crop varieties, only a handful are responsive to direct genetic manipulation. For the varieties that are responsive, breeders develop seed products to help growers manage their changing needs—from weather conditions to damaging pests and weeds. But with so many genetic combinations for breeders to edit, it can take years before the genetics are available to growers.
Kelliher, a science fellow, and Qiudeng Que, Ph.D., a senior group leader of transformation at Syngenta, co-invented a novel genome-editing technique that works across crop varieties and reduces the time it takes to make direct genetic improvement. They call it HI-Edit™, which stands for haploid induction editing.
“This discovery makes the concept of genome editing much more realistic for farmers,” Kelliher says. “It can improve farmers’ seeds in a much shorter time frame than was possible even just a year ago.”
HI-Edit is a one-step technique that uses haploid induction—the process of reproducing plant cells—with genome-editing machinery like CRISPR, a powerful tool that allows researchers to easily alter DNA sequences and modify gene function. The combination of tools accelerates the transfer of desirable genes and allows breeders to make more precise edits.
“The beauty of HI-Edit is that it combines the process of gene editing and the process of haploid induction into one step,” says Gusui Wu, Ph.D., head of seeds research at Syngenta. “Haploid induction has been routinely used in the breeding process for many years. HI-Edit takes advantage of that process to rapidly produce varieties with precise gene edits.”
Kelliher’s team used HI-Edit successfully in field corn and sweet corn crops. They also tested it on wheat and a genus of plants related to other crops, including tomatoes and soybeans, so they have evidence the technology could work across different crops.
Innovation Is a Team Sport
Kelliher credits his team’s success in discovering the groundbreaking technology to the resources available at the RTP facility, which include the Advanced Crop Lab, where a variety of crops grows throughout the year.
“When we had the idea, we already had corn crops for testing,” he says. “It only took us two months to get the data we needed to prove it worked. It usually takes 10 times as long.”
Innovation is a team sport that takes creative scientists collaborating on an idea and carrying out experiments, but it also needs a supportive organization, according to Wu. “We try to foster an environment at Syngenta where discoveries like this happen,” he says. “When they do, it’s extremely gratifying.”
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