Phenome 2020 will bring together plant scientists, engineers and computer scientists for three-plus days of collaboration, new tech, and hands-on workshops in warm and sunny Tucson, Arizona at the end of February.

All of that is anchored by plenary talks by Dr. Paul Cohen, Dr. Kathleen Brown, and Dr. Leonie Moyle.

In 2017, Cohen left DARPA to found the School of Computing and Information at the University of Pittsburgh, where he is also a professor of computer science. At Phenome2020, Cohen will share his work on how artificial intelligence can help humans — plant scientists included — model the complex systems they study and rely on. The stakes are high, he says.

“The modern world depends on highly connected, increasingly stressed systems, so there’s some urgency to understanding how changes to one affect others,” says Cohen. Though far from easy to construct, detailed models of entire complex systems can allow researchers to see the tradeoffs inherent in, say, fighting climate change while boosting crop yields.

That kind of modeling promises to pair well with classical scientific investigation, Cohen says. Because while most scientists discover new knowledge by looking downward at ever finer pieces of the natural world, they risk overlooking the systems up above. “We must train a new generation of scholars to look upward,” he says.

Brown, a professor of plant stress biology at Penn State University, has pioneered new ways of peering into one aspect of the plant world normally hidden from view: roots. Roots form the foundation of plant growth and crop yield, yet the subterranean life that they lead makes it challenging for plant scientists to accurately assess, and then improve, these vital structures.

Root reconstruction

At her talk, Brown will share her lab’s platforms for phenotyping root anatomy and how to use that information to develop more stress resistant crops. As part of the Roots Lab at Penn State, Brown has developed software such as DIRT, an automatic system that quantifies root phenotypes from photographs.

Through DIRT and other platforms, the Roots Lab is developing new ways to understand how plants adapt to drought and poor fertility so crop scientists can help sustainably feed a growing global population. Brown hopes attendees come away from her talk understanding that “anatomical traits affect plant performance and can be combined with other root and shoot traits to increase crop resilience.”

Moyle is a professor of biology at Indiana University in Bloomington, and her lab is concerned with the question that launched modern biology: how new species arise. Focusing particularly on the nightshade family, Moyle’s team addresses the ecological, evolutionary and genetic links between how species adapt to new environments and diverge.

Answering those questions means big data. Moyle’s team generates troves of genomic information across the tomato, pepper and Jaltomata families. All that data helps them untangle what changes lead to rapid species radiations, investigate adaptations to climate change, and decipher how species put up reproductive barriers to diverge for good.

With the breadth and depth these talks will offer, you can’t afford to miss out on Phenome 2020. Register today.

Written by Eric Hamilton for Peridot Scientific Communications