Biotech Crop Discovery Poised for Fast Growth Thanks to Big Data

Biotech Crop Discovery Poised for Fast Growth Thanks to Big Data

Big agriculture companies have been using HPC techniques to understand and manipulate the genes of food staples like corn and soy for many years. Now, thanks to the big data revolution, that kind of fine-grained genetic control will soon be wielded by smaller firms targeting a much wider swath of biotech crops.

One of the companies on the cutting edge of biotech crops is Benson Hill Biosystems. The company, which came out of the Donald Danforth Plance Science Center in St. Louis, Missouri, today unveiled a new big data-powered platform called CropOS that’s designed to put powerful gene discovery techniques into the hands of small and midsize ag firms looking to take innovation from the lab into the field.

CropOS is a cloud-based platform that essentially enables biologists and food scientists to predict what will happen when they cross one plant with another (selective breeding) or a specific group of genes from one plant with those of another (genetic engineering). The company does this by combining the genetic sequences of plants (the genotype) with the known expression of genes (the phenotype), and then running the data through powerful machine learning algorithms that predict how the genes interact.

This general approach has been used for decades by big multi-national agricultural firms like Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow Chemical, which have the huge resources needed to fund this type of research. And it’s been very successful: According to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-Biotech Applications, more than 90 percent of sugar beets, of soybeans, cotton, and feed corn grown in the United States is genetically engineered, usually to be either herbicide or pest resistant.

But this technique is not widespread in the rest of the world. Globally, just 12 percent of cropland is planted with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), according to the ISAAA. But that could soon change, according to Benson Hill CEO Matthew Crisp, who says the global biotech food industry is on the cusp of huge advances thanks to the rapid maturation of big data tech and cloud computing.

“The data acquisition costs have just gone down orders of magnitude compared to 10 years ago,” Crisp tells Datanami. “Today we can sequence entire populations of plants and ascertain genetic diversity in a matter of weeks, whereas it would have taken years and 100 to 1,000 as much from a cost standpoint before.”

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