Artificial intelligence helps scientists design better foods

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Fighting hunger and maintaining a complete diet remains a challenge in the world, especially in underdeveloped regions. Efforts to tackle these challenges are underway and it’s a big job, gathering momentum as the population grows and the effects of climate change alter the agricultural landscape.

Sometimes finding the solution to big problems requires detailed knowledge of very small things, like the genome of basic plants like chickpeas. A recent study by Rajeev Varshney of the Center of Excellence in Genomics and Systems Biology of the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) and his colleagues examined the genome of chickpeas in the hope to find a way to build better food crops. Their findings were published in the journal Nature.

They didn’t just look at some sort of chickpea. Instead, the work analyzed more than 3,366 varieties of the plant – 3,171 cultivated species and 195 wild species – in order to get a full picture of genetic diversity. They created a pan-genome that describes the genetic diversity between cultivated species and their plants of wild origin.

“It has been a long journey since its inception in 2014,” Varshney told SYFY WIRE. “This was the first such effort in any culture. It took us about three years to generate all the data, then three to four years to analyze and interpret the data.

The work, while discouraging, resulted in the identification of a total of 29,870 genes, including 1,582 that had not been previously reported. This analysis identified beneficial genes as well as harmful mutations that result in less performing plants and lower crop yields. This data was then transmitted to the University of Queensland where it was analyzed by an artificial intelligence called FastStack, which specializes in designing new varieties of plants and crops for optimal yield.

The productivity of pulses, of which chickpeas are one type, has stagnated for half a century. As populations increase, this has resulted in low per capita food availability and contributes to malnutrition. Improving yields through upgrades could help reduce some of this burden.

“Chickpeas are an important legume, cultivated in more than 50 countries and a rich source of protein. Chickpea is a key crop for nutritional security, especially in developing countries, ”said Varshney.

Scientists have identified genes and families of genes called haplotypes – groupings of genes that are all inherited together – that play a potential role in controlling seed size and development. The next steps are to use genetic data and artificial intelligence and select new, more robust chickpea varieties in the real world. Importantly, the team identified potential improvements in an effort to maintain genetic diversity. They estimate an ability to improve seed weight, an important yield measure, up to 23%

“We offer three breeding approaches based on genomic predictions that aim to improve 16 traits and increase production,” said Varshney. “Our results can be used to develop improved chickpea varieties with better yield, better nutrition and higher resistance to several biotic and abiotic factors. We plan to use the AI ​​approach to combine haplotypes of our choice for optimal yield in elite chickpea varieties. “

While this genetic and AI research allowed scientists to start breeding new species to improve crop yields, it also opened the door for similar research on other staple crops. ICRISAT is reviewing other pulses and grains, crops that have been identified as key foods for stability, to identify their next target. Additionally, the work has the potential to unfold benefits not only on different species of chickpeas, but on entirely different plants.

Previous work on sequencing the pigeon pea genome has isolated a gene that could be deployed in soybeans, making them resistant to Asian soybean rust, a destructive fungal disease. If the movies tell us anything about artificial intelligence, it is that they will inevitably see us as a threat and seek to destroy us, but before they do, they are busy working to design us richer food and better.

We can’t wait to try this cleverly designed hummus.

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