Using Technology with Purpose
Careful observation is a cornerstone of the scientific process. But imagine if you could observe what the eye cannot see… continuously, using algorithms and software to make sense of the massive amounts of data generated. Head of Research Technologies Benjamin Laga and Maarten Bekaert, Group Lead of Plant Phenotyping, are leading efforts at Bayer to make the best use of technological innovation, such as precision phenotyping. This rapidly evolving field is just one of the many technologies that make them enthusiastic about the future of trait research.
Put simply, a plant phenotype includes all the observable characteristics that result from the way an individual plant genome interacts with the environment – it’s how genes are expressed in a living organism. Advancements in imaging, sensors and data analysis have now enabled scientists to measure phenotypic expression for complex characteristics related to growth, yield and adaptation with much greater accuracy. This creates a data driven foundation to inform a whole new level of decision making when it comes to solving unique challenges for farmers.
Head of Research Technologies, Bayer
Benjamin: As an engineer, I’m interested in what makes things tick – how the universe works and how people think. I found my way into plant biotechnology 20 years ago after knocking on the door of a small company called Plant Genetics Systems (PGS) which would become the metaphorical cradle of the plant biotechnology movement. This company eventually became a part of Bayer. Now in my role as Head of Research Technologies at Bayer, I am focused on how technologies like precision phenotyping, targeted gene optimization or artificial intelligence are introduced and applied through our organization.
Maarten: Before Bayer, I had been working with highly monitored Intensive Care Unit (ICU) patients in more of an academic role. During my interview at Bayer, I immediately saw similarities between this experience and precision phenotyping. Both disciplines monitor what is both seen and unseen using data in a multidisciplinary way to make the most informed decisions possible. It’s about finding ways to do things differently or better.
Benjamin: Most definitely! Data translates across all scientific disciplines, be it humans, animals or in our case, plants. In our research, we aim to understand the plant systems so we can translate our observations to positively impact performance of some kind. Precision phenotyping allows us to go beyond what the human eye can observe in plants. It gives us a chance to measure continuously and at a level of detail that was not previously possible. Artificial intelligence will allow us to see patterns in that data beyond what the human mind can discern– and with these new insights we can uncover novel ways to optimize.
Maarten: This is where technological advancements revolutionize what we can do. In order to support our growing population, we need to improve yields with the same amount of land and using fewer resources. In the past, we were mainly measuring yield, which is the result and integration of many components over time, moreover, it can only be truly measured at the end of the season. Today, with the technology at hand we can start to really understand these different factors the contribute to overall yield to accelerate and optimize our research strategies. This reality is within reach and more important than ever.
Group Lead of Plant Phenotyping, Bayer
Using Technology with Purpose
Benjamin: We want grow foods sustainably in sufficient quality and quantity to address the growing population – I want to be a part of that story. At Bayer, we are focused on solutions enabled by technology. But technology needs to be used responsibly, with a goal in mind – a purpose. And this approach, this purpose behind what we do, makes our work meaningful. We come to work not just to make a living but to help the world. For example, in canola, the pod can open prematurely leaving the seeds to drop to the ground before harvest. In this situation, the yield, the farmer’s effort, the use of land, nitrogen and water are all lost. In a project where we used several new techniques for the first time, we developed plants where the pod does not open prematurely, remedying the farmer’s challenges, and contributing to our sustainability objectives.
Maarten: In that instance and in every challenge we face, we need to understand how something works in order to improve it. You can only understand what you can measure and you can only change what you understand. If you want to understand and improve yield, you cannot just measure the harvest at the end of the season but must measure and integrate many components of yield over time. Phenotyping allows us to measure things we cannot even see down to the millisecond. Armed with this data, we can develop smart algorithms, adjust genes and create solutions the world so desperately needs. Phenotyping is linked to digital farming by translating digital imagery into data like never before. This data leads to algorithms that can help famers increase both their understanding and yields. The industry is quickly evolving and the more integrated and purposeful our technological advancements can become, the better.
Benjamin: It’s about using technology to build innovative solutions required to feed our growing population with the utmost respect for our planet. Technology without a purpose becomes meaningless. Fortunately, our team comes to work with a great purpose, ready to rise to the agricultural challenges of our future.