ARPA-E awards $30M in high-risk, high-reward moonshot program to transform energy crops

June 18, 2015 |

arpae-logoSix projects land major multi-year awards for Project TERRA, Tramsportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture

In Washington, ARPA-E announced awards totaling $30 million for projects seeking to accelerate the development of sustainable energy crops for the production of renewable transportation fuels from biomass. The projects are led by Clemson, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Purdue, Texas A&M, and the University of Illinois. Partners include Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute, Blue River Technologies, Chromatin, IBM, National Robotics Engineering Center, Signetron and Cornell.

Agriculture meets info tech, robotics, and engineering — all in one

It’s a wild and exciting assortment of projects at a convergence point between agriculture, information technology and engineering. Think phenotyping platforms, hyperspectral imagery, 3-D shape data, point- cloud data sets, data streams from ground- based and mobile platforms for automated phenotyping, field deployable mobile robotics platforms, and rover-mounted lasers.

The TERRA program provides $30 million to support six project teams in the development of improved varieties of sorghum, a crop used to produce biofuel, by developing improved plant remote sensing, analysis and breeding methods — and the target is energy sorghum.

TERRA project teams will address the limitations surrounding crop phenotyping (identifying and measuring the physical characteristics of plants) and genotyping (decoding the DNA of a plant), which are both manual and time-intensive processes. Project teams will develop mobile platforms with sensory systems to observe and record the characteristics of plants and create advanced algorithms to analyze data and predict plant growth potential. Additionally, the TERRA program will fund the creation of a large public database comprised of sorghum genotypes and field phenotypes. This database will provide the greater community of plant physiologists, bioinformaticians and geneticists with the knowledge to improve sorghum and bioenergy crops.

And the winners are…

Clemson University – Clemson, SC 

Breeding High Yielding Bioenergy Sorghum for the New Bioenergy Belt – $6,000,000 

Clemson University, along with the Carnegie Mellon Robotics Institute and partners, will phenotype an exhaustive set of international germplasm and plant varieties. Researchers will design and build cutting-edge phenotyping platforms that can rapidly collect visual imagery, hyperspectral imagery and 3-D shape data of test crops multiple times daily. The platforms – ground and aerial – will have the ability to directly contact the plant in order to systematically quantify physical characteristics that were previously measured with labor- intensive, low-throughput methods. The team will use sophisticated cameras and imaging algorithms to develop 3-D models of individual plants and their canopy structure, implement machine-learning techniques to analyze the data gathered and translate this into predictive algorithms for breeding improved biofuel sorghum hybrids.

Donald Danforth Plant Science Center – St. Louis, MO 

A Reference Phenotyping System for Energy Sorghum – $8,000,000 

The Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, along with its research partners, will coordinate a national network of test sites in AZ, KS, MO, SC and TX, to provide broad environmental and genetic diversity essential for understanding phenotype behavior. The team will host a state-of-the-art plant phenotyping system, which provides high-resolution evaluation of crops grown under field conditions. In addition, comprehensive genomic analyses will be conducted to create a high-quality reference dataset of energy sorghum’s physical characteristics and genetic information. The project will ultimately provide data in community-defined formats that will be made available to researchers in a high-performance computing environment and archived for public use.

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory – Richland, WA 

Consortium for Advanced Sorghum Phenomics (CASP) – $3,300,000 

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) and its research partners will utilize novel phenotyping platforms, predictive modeling techniques and image processing tools to generate maps of plant composition and predict plant growth. The project will focus on simulating drought and salinity stresses in order to develop plant varieties that are more resilient to these environmental challenges. PNNL will perform molecular phenotyping to identify breeding markers for these biotic stresses. Meanwhile, Blue River Technologies will develop autonomous phenotyping systems that can create 3-D models of individual plants and construct point- cloud data sets used to produce the plant composition maps. Finally, Chromatin Inc. will advance improved commercial seed cultivars.

Purdue University – West Lafayette, IN 

Automated Sorghum Phenotyping and Trait Development Platform – $6,500,000 

Purdue University’s team, along with IBM Research and partners, will acquire and utilize data to develop predictive models for plant growth and to design and implement sophisticated methods for identifying genes controlling sorghum performance. The team will create a system that combines data streams from ground- based and mobile platforms for automated phenotyping. Advanced image and signal processing methods will extract phenotypic information to produce predictive models for plant growth and development. The team will also use high-performance computing platforms and prediction algorithms to analyze and identify links between plant characteristics and their underlying genetics. The end goal is to develop a user-friendly system that will enable breeders and other end users to interact with the data and analytics.

Texas A&M AgriLife Research – College Station, TX 

Automated Phenotyping System for Genetic Improvement of Energy Crops – $3,100,000 

Texas A&M AgriLife Research (TAMU), along with the National Robotics Engineering Center and partners, will develop an advanced phenotyping system consisting of a suite of sensors mounted on a durable, ground- based, field deployable, mobile robotics platform. The system will employ an extendable, mechanical arm that can penetrate the dense plant canopy to capture images and measurements from above, within and below the crop, yielding previously unattainable sensor data. The team will use TAMU’s existing, world-class collection of sorghum varieties and will employ machine vision and learning algorithms to process the data for predictive modeling of plant growth.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign – Champaign, IL 

Mobile Energy-Crop Phenotyping Platform (MEPP) – $3,100,000 

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), with its partners Cornell University and Signetron Inc., will develop small-scale, automated ground rovers with the distinct capability to travel within the crops between rows. Phenotyping platforms will measure crop growth via 3-D reconstruction of plants and stands and assess physiological indicators of performance using reflectance and LiDAR (laser light detection and ranging) sensors. The team will also use sophisticated biophysical growth models and DNA-sequencing technologies to develop innovative methods for accelerating improvement of energy sorghum and identifying key genes that control plant performance.

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