Advances in phenotyping platforms bring the lab to the field

Scientists have made revolutionary advances in their ability to identify genes associated with traits such as drought tolerance or yield in the laboratory, but are still held back by the challenge of observing how these genes express themselves in a complex real-world environment, a practice known as phenotyping.

However, new imaging and aerial technologies are converging to allow plant physiologists to bring the lab to the field, in full-scale outdoor breeding trials. These high-throughput phenotyping platforms (HTPPs) can open up the way for revolutionary programs to search for new varieties of wheat or maize that are sure to thrive in challenging environments.

This is the conclusion of a review article published by CIMMYT’s Jill Cairns and José Luis Araus of the University of Barcelona (Field high-throughput phenotyping: the new crop breeding frontier) in the January 2014 issue of Trends in Plant Science. They identify the four groups of technologies that lie behind this second revolution:

  1. Lightweight cameras taking images from the visible to the infrared spectrum
  2. Proximity sensors to observe factors such as soil and root conditions
  3. Unmanned aerial platforms (UAPs) to survey large areas at a low enough speed to capture high resolution images, in combination with geographical information systems (GIS)
  4. Climate and meteorological data

Combined with existing phenotyping methods, such as laboratory analysis and near-infrared spectroscopy of the harvested crop, this new data can tell breeders how efficiently their crops are using resources such as sunlight, soil nutrients, fertilizer or water, how quickly diseases are spreading and how to take account of varying conditions in the planting areas. Crucially, they can now analyze all the plants at once without taking invasive samples, and look at performance throughout the entire crop cycle.


The article was part-financed by the MAIZE CRP, and benefitted from phenotyping innovations that were funded by WHEAT.


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