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CIAT's Phenomics Platform

What we do

Since 2011, CIAT’s Phenomics Platform has allowed scientists to use fast and simple quantitative and qualitative methods to assess plant growth and development. This facilitates the detailed observation and measurement of the different traits resulting from the expression of genetic characteristics of plants, both physical and behavioral, since such expression is influenced by external environmental factors.

The overall objective of the Platform is phenotyping crops to contribute to eco-efficient agriculture.

Thanks to the close collaboration and support from its partners and collaborators from around the world, CIAT has placed a set of high-technology equipment in its headquarters – located in Palmira, Colombia – that are operated by qualified and specialized researchers.

Phenotyping, the object of study of phenomics, is the area of biology that helps understanding the complex interaction between genotype (plant’s genetic information) and the environment (environmental conditions and management), as these determine phenotype (physical characteristics, yield, stress tolerance, etc.).

How we do it

To monitor crops in an efficient and precise manner, the phenomics platform comprises the following infrastructure and equipment: movable greenhouses, low-nitrogen plots, geo-radar, terrestrial laser scanner, infrared cameras, multispectral cameras, and drones.

The phenomics platform facilitates the evaluation and diagnosis processes of crops, reducing the plant-by-plant manual labor to the minimum – a task that used to take entire days and the involvement of several people – to become an activity performed in a short time using high-precision equipment, from which data are analyzed with the aid of specialized software.

Moveable rainout shelter

These are movable structures equipped with technology that accurately controls crop water level, which is a key factor for the future of agriculture, in view of the challenges posed by climate change. These greenhouses simplify the evaluation of drought tolerance in plants.

CIAT has four movable rainout shelters equipped with automated irrigation systems, which are being used to promote the development and adoption of low-input rice production systems in Latin America, through genetic improvement and advanced crop management technologies. These are also used to conduct drought tolerance studies in bean plants.

Nitrogen-omission plots

These are pilot areas intended for the evaluation of crops and their use of fertilizer. Here, trials are especially designed to evaluate the performance and yield of rice varieties regarding their efficiency in the use of nitrogen and water.

As a result of the alliance formed in 2008 by the African Agricultural Technology Foundation, the California-based Arcadia Biosciences, the Public Intellectual Property Resource for Agriculture (PIPRA), the National Agricultural Research Systems (NARS) from Uganda, Ghana, and Nigeria in a project financed by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), CIAT scans and validates the best performance of rice varieties, in terms of their efficiency in the use of nitrogen, identifying elite varieties to be included in field tests in Sub-Saharan Africa, where rice production is in the hands of smallholder producers, who have to cope with nitrogen-deficient, saline soils and drought conditions.

Geo-radar and terrestrial laser scanner, two remote sensing instruments

With the appearance and the dimensions of a lawn mower and a past associated with the detection of buried objects, or the search for hidden structures, the geo-radar offers advantages for studying characteristics of plant roots on multiple occasions during the whole growth cycle, without having to harvest or destroy them.

Meanwhile, the terrestrial laser scanner consists of the active emission of a laser light that can be used to calculate biomass, yield, and the structure of a crop.

This instrument can become a non-invasive tool to complement the geo-radar in detecting increases in root volume in crops such as cassava, in which the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) and CIAT – two CGIAR sister centers – share a research interest to release high-yielding cultivars and hybrids, resulting from an early increase of root volume.

Through alliances with universities, such as Texas A&M, and companies, such as IDS North America, CIAT is currently using remote sensing to carry out an in-depth study of the characteristics of roots to increase the productivity of plants, especially those having to cope with low levels of nutrients and water. These tools allow for multiple measurements in the field on a large number of plants along their whole growth cycle.

Drones and multispectral cameras

Drones are small, light, unmanned aircrafts operated by remote control, equipped with helices and guided by GPS, which constitute key elements of the Phenomics Platform. These instruments allow scientists to capture images of extensive plots of land from different angles and within minutes, in order to monitor crop development.

Drones carry cameras with infrared and multispectral sensors that capture images during flight, which are later analyzed and correlated to physical and chemical indicators to facilitate the evaluation and physiological diagnosis of crops, as well as to make real-time decisions. This helps breeders to select those varieties that show a better performance under different types of biotic and abiotic stresses.

Currently, at the Headquarters of CIAT, located in Colombia, drones are used to fly over field trials of rice and cassava to capture images of the variations in color, a key indicator of the nitrogen levels inside the plant and water loss.

A task that has been made possible by the alliance between the Center and Japan, through the Science and Technology Research Partnership for Sustainable Development (SATREPS) project, supported by the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and the Japan Science and Technology Agency (JST), as well as collaborators such as Colombia’s Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MADR), the National Federation of Rice Producers (FEDEARROZ), the Latin American Fund for Irrigated Rice (FLAR), the University of Valle, and the University of Tokyo. All these entities see this technology as the means to speed up the development of new rice varieties.