April 3, 2018

Plants x Data Science: Phenomics and the Future of Indoor Agriculture

We sat down with AeroFarms VP of R&D and one of our in-house horticulture experts, Dr. April Agee Carroll, to teach us about phenomics and how this science is helping AeroFarms transform agriculture.

Who is Dr. April Agee Carroll?

As a pioneer and leader in the field of plant phenomics, Dr. Carroll utilizes advanced imaging technologies, molecular analysis, and data science to model plant growth & development to understand how plants respond to their environments. She currently serves as founding Chair of the North American Plant Phenotyping Network, and was a past Co-Chair of the International Plant Phenotyping Network. Carroll’s foundational training in basic plant biology, paired with a passion for high throughput technology, has been used to enable discoveries for companies such as DuPont Pioneer, Dow AgroSciences and Syngenta, and for Purdue University as Director of Phenomics.

So April, what exactly is Phenomics?

Phenomics is the study of all observable characteristics of a living organism. These observable characteristics are called phenotypes, and are anything measurable within the plant, such as the chemistry, color, genetic code, size, and so on. I like to call it measurement science, because we are constantly gathering all kinds of data and from there, determining what is significant to the problem at hand.

Plant phenomics is particularly interesting to me because of the amazing adaptability of plants. Plants are sessile organisms, meaning they can’t pick up and move. Unlike animals who can burrow or run away from danger, plants must stay in a fixed location when facing threat. Because of this challenge, plants have adapted to their environments extremely well. Understanding this adaptability and the behavior of plants is an interesting challenge. Even with all that has been learned, there is still so much more information to uncover about plant growth and that is what I find so exciting.

How do you use Phenomics at AeroFarms?

At AeroFarms, we are working to uncover some of these plant mysteries and further improve our growing algorithm. Something that has been very different for me thus far has been working within the short growth cycle of leafy greens. In the past, I have worked with plants that have long grow cycles, such as corn and soybeans. Having that long cycle, there is time to make changes and see how plants react. At AeroFarms, I only have 12–16 days from seed to harvest. so I have to work quickly and decisively to determine the appropriate hypothesis and measurement procedure. Although the short cycle is a challenge, it does have the benefit of rapid learnings. If you think about a traditional field farmer, they may only have 1–3 harvests per year to learn from. We’re harvesting 22 to 30 times a year. That’s 30 chances to learn from our greens and further refine our growing algorithms.

Another exciting challenge for me is how to manage the tremendous amounts of data we are gathering from each harvest! These rich data sets are the key to our continued learning. The delicate balance arises when managing time and resources to gather and evaluate this data. One way we are managing this challenge is through our strategic partnership with Dell Technologies. Working with Dell, we are accelerating our work on how we use the internet of things to actively manage the conditions within our grow room and organize our team to work quickly and efficiently.

For controlled environment farming, plant biology is needed to understand the fundamentals of how the plants grow and the ideal conditions for the growing environment. Biologists must then work closely, and often simultaneously, with engineering and operations to complete a given task. Information technology is the glue required to connect and move all of this forward.

What does the future hold?

The future is bright for AeroFarms and the controlled agriculture space and agriculture overall. AeroFarms is combining top practices of horticulture, engineering, and data science like never before. We are doing amazing ground-breaking work with the Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research to optimize plants for nutrition and taste. This is a very exciting time for anyone interested in learning more about plant growth and improving the sustainability of the way we grow food.

My goal at AeroFarms is to continue learning with every harvest and further refine our growing algorithms. As this company scales around the globe, these learnings continue to increase exponentially. Using the internet of things, we are able to remotely access and control farms around the world. We will also be able to combine all of the data from these farms, to have an even richer pool of information and insights to ensure high quality all of the time.

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