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Tool could lead to better crops, pesticides

September 29, 2009  By Marg Land

tomatoes02September 29, 2009 – A new
computing tool is being developed by researchers, which could help scientists
predict how plants will react to different environmental conditions.

September 29, 2009 – A new
computing tool is being developed by researchers, which could help scientists
predict how plants will react to different environmental conditions.

The tool will form part of
a new £1.7 million Syngenta University Centre at Imperial College London, which
will see researchers from Imperial and Syngenta working together to improve
agricultural products.


Scientists are keen to
develop new strains of crops and new pesticides that are more environmentally
friendly. However, in order to do this, they need to predict how the genes
inside plants will react when they are subjected to different chemicals or
environmental conditions.

“We believe our computing
tool will revolutionize agricultural research by making the process much faster
than is currently possible using conventional techniques,” said Professor
Stephen Muggleton, director of the new Centre from the Department of Computing
at Imperial College London. “We hope that our new technology will ultimately
help farmers to produce hardier, longer lasting and more nutritious crops.”

The researchers have
developed a prototype of the new tool, which they are currently testing. It can
analyze in a matter of minutes, instead of months, which genes are responsible
for different processes inside a plant, and how different genes work together.
It uses a type of computer programming that relies on machine learning, a set
of sophisticated algorithms that allows a computer to learn based on data that it
is analyzing. The researchers say the tool will recognize complex patterns in
that data to find nuggets of information about plant biology that might
previously have taken months or even years to find.

The machine learning
ability of the new tool means that researchers can develop an understanding of
different plants even when they are lacking information about some aspects of
their inner workings.

Previously, mathematical
modelling of a plant’s behaviour has been time consuming and difficult because
without all the information about a plant, the models have been imprecise.

For the first project
using the tool, scientists will look at how different genes affect the way a
tomato’s flesh hardens and tastes, and how the fruit’s skin changes colour from
green to red.

The researchers hope that
this will enable them to develop new tomato strains that are tastier, and that
redden earlier and soften later so that they can be transported more easily to
market. These qualities could be especially useful in developing countries,
where factors such as poor transport can quickly spoil fruit and vegetables.

Another project will see
researchers testing the safety of pesticides that Syngenta is developing,
before they reach the manufacturing stage. The tool will allow them to
construct models that reveal, for example, whether a proposed pesticide might
affect metabolites, which are responsible for processing energy inside a plant.

All software developed by
researchers at Imperial College will be made publicly available over the next
four years.

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