Computation for the Endless Frontier | Feeding the Planet with Better Crop Varieties

Physicists have been using supercomputers since the 1940s. But biologists and life scientists constitute a newer group of computational researchers. The Human Genome Project showed how DNA sequencers and computers can combine forces to sequence genes and develop insights from their relationships. Its success spurred the widespread adoption of advanced computing in the life sciences.

Ed Buckler, a research geneticist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a member of the National Academy of Sciences, is among the biologists excited to use Frontera to enable important new findings.

"Global protein production needs to double in 40 years in order to feed the planet," Buckler said. "The computational modeling of crop genomes and their interactions with a wide range of environments will allow us to design a food system that can sustainably feed the planet for the coming century."

Buckler studies how corn genomes interact with their environment. The goal is to plant the right crops in the right places at the right times, and develop varieties that are heat- and drought-tolerant.

In Buckler's experiments, rovers and drones travel over, on, and under fields gathering vast amounts of data related to the health of the crops in a given environment. Combining this approach with gene sequencing offers up new insights, but requires massive computing power.

"The goals are to make maize varieties that requires fewer inputs, such as fertilizer and water, while at the same time being adapted to extreme weather," Buckler said. "A lot of our questions require the scale of computing that Frontera offers."

The methods Buckler is pioneering for maize can be applied to many other crops, as well as to the management of forests and other resources. But it's not just Frontera's ability to crunch data that's important, Buckler says.

"Frontera will train the next generation of scientists on how to analyze data and what kinds of questions we can address with computing," he said. "It will bring together the scientific fields with engineering and computer science."