The future of agriculture may one day look less like tractors and plows in fields and more like teams of geneticists, engineers and computational scientists operating cutting-edge robotics and space-age technologies to test crops and better understand how to breed and improve them.
Outlandish? Perhaps. But almost certainly, farming in the future will be shaped by reams of genetic data that will prevent green fields from turning brown and stop fertile fields from becoming barren. Using traditional plant breeding alongside modern plant science such as molecular genetics and biochemistry, genetics professor Stephen Kresovich and his research team are developing new crops and crop-based products that could one day feed our planet.
“We are the cartographers of plant genomes,” Kresovich says.
But advancing plant genetics quickly enough to figure out how to feed the world’s projected 9 billion people still begins with a single seed planted in a South Carolina field.
Large-scale genomics data analysis happening via Clemson’s Palmetto Cluster is key in those findings. While most biologists would like to have bioinformatics infrastructure in their labs, this resource takes considerable time to build, explains Alex Feltus, professor of genetics and biochemistry and a faculty adviser to CCIT. Because the burden of building that computational capacity is shared and supported institutionally, Kresovich and others can focus on the work of research and analysis.
Kresovich is applying genomics and bioinformatics to pressing issues in agriculture, conservation, nutrition and human health, and his team’s findings could have a ripple effect on answering critical food-source questions around the world.
Plant genetics and human genetics are equally problematic when it comes to figuring out what makes them thrive and what causes them to die. Crop genomes, like human genomes, are always changing, molded by evolutionary processes and human intervention. And there are millions of combinations to be mapped, requiring huge amounts of data and processing speed to sort through them.
By identifying the genetic bases for improved yield and value-added products, Kresovich and his colleagues are positioning the state’s agribusiness industry for a more competitive future. This is important, in large part because agribusiness — agriculture, forestry and natural resources — represents South Carolina’s largest industry from an economic impact and an employment perspective.
“Now is the time for people to think about what big questions there are and how universities that have the resources to invest in integrated research and education can address those critical problems of society,” Kresovich says.
“A good team puts their biological work in a social and economic context,” he says. “It takes all those things to try to answer some of the questions and solve some of our big problems.”