Growing virtual plants could teach farmers how to best grow real ones

CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Tom Lord

As the climate changes and the world's population grows, there is an increasing uncertainty about how we'll be able to grow enough food to feed everyone. Climate change means more drought, a drop in soil nutrients and a shift in what crops can grow where and while researchers have been working on ways to forecast these changes, there is still a lot of pressure on farmers to boost their yields to meet increasing demand.

Researchers around the world are zeroing in on one tool that will help: virtual plants. At various universities, researchers are building computer simulation programs that allow users to set different variables and then see how a crop grows under those conditions.

Scientists start by studying plant behavior out in the field first using microscopes and then they build the models based on what they measured in real life. Users can then toggle the data to create the most drought- and pest-resistant crops.

Scientists can set water availability, sun exposure or shade cover, even microbial interactions and then run the simulation to see how the plant grows in that environment. The information revealed from the simulations can inform farmers so that they can maximize their yield of any crop.

Researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign tested simulations of four different planting patterns, including staggered versus symmetrical seed lines and north-south versus east-west orientation, for Brazilian sugar cane. The simulations showed that the staggered seed lines and north-south orientation boosted yields by 10 percent. The entire processing and analysis of those simulations was accomplished in a day whereas trying various planting patterns in the real world would take at least an entire growing season.

Researchers are working to make that processing time even shorter. Imagine scientists running simulations of plant growth in just a minute. All of the information learned could help farmers to maximize their crop yields even with a changing climate.

Growing virtual plants could teach farmers how to best grow real ones
Researchers are developing computer simulations that can improve agricultural success.

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