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August 18, 2017

Growing Virtual Plants Could Help Farmers Boost Their Crops

By Leslie Nemo, Scientific American
What if farmers could grow sugarcane in a matter of seconds, not days or weeks? Scientists are doing just that. Of course, these crops are not sprouting from soil. Instead they flourish on a computer screen.

Digital plants like these are part of a new movement in agricultural science called “in silico,” where researchers design highly accurate, computer-simulated crops to help speed up selective breeding, in which plants are chosen and replanted to amplify their desirable traits. Scientists believe the future of farming is not just in fields, but in graphics, too.

This new area of crop science comes at a precarious time for global food security. The world’s current population is some 7.5 billion people, and the Pew Research Center predicts it will skyrocket to about 9.6 billion by 2050. To make matters worse, researchers have recorded severe drop-offsin soil nutrients and water availability worldwide. As the foundation of how we feed ourselves, future crops will need to make more with less. The millennia-old strategy of just handpicking and replanting the varieties that thrive is too slow, says Eberhard Voit, a biologist at Georgia Institute of Technology. “We need a more targeted approach,” he says. This is where crops in silico may help. By studying plant growth using computer simulations, researchers could discover which attributes make the best pickings and why, in far less time than a traditional growing season.


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