Report from PhenomUk Annual Meeting

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Published on: February 13, 2020

The PhenomUK network is into its second year of operating supported by the UKRI Technology Touching Life scheme. PhenomUK focuses on how technological developments in plant phenotyping can impact agricultural productivity for the benefit of UK and global food production.

Despite being early in its four-year funding cycle PhenomUK has a growing mailing list, social media following and welcomed around 60 attendees to this annual meeting at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL). For those not familiar; the NPL is situated in west London and employs 600 people who research and support the science of measurement, Metrology. Around 50% of NPL funding comes direct from UK government with the remainder from competitive grants and private partnerships. The core activities of the NPL are in calibration services that are linked to the maintenance of SI base units such as the kilogram, second, ampere or metre. However as part of their data science program, researchers at NPL are applying their technical expertise to agricultural challenges.

NPL scientist Andrew Thompson presented some of his groups early data in which they first used 3D imaging to visualize wheat fields and then applied density calculations to isolate individual wheat-ears. There will be plenty to come from this research program and they are happy to discuss collaborations with anyone who wants to tap into their expertise.

Andrew Thompson shows his 3D imaging of wheat

The keynote talks were provided by Hanno Scharr from Forschungszentrum Jülich and Mark Aarts from Wageningen University & Research (WUR). Jülich has an outstanding selection of across-scale technologies to support phenotyping, from automated seed picking through to satellite-enabled field imaging whilst WUR are collaborating with the University of Utrecht to develop the Netherlands Plant Eco-phenotyping Centre (NPEC). Both facilities cost in excess of €20M and highlight the infrastructural support required to develop a national capability. It remains to be seen whether this will be possible across the more fragmented UK plant science community.

UKRI/BBSRC understand the importance of plant phenotyping technologies and are supportive of the community….however a £10M+ investment might be a little way off! It was excellent to hear Professor Aarts provide an perspective of where the NEPC will sit within the European and International phenotyping communities.

Mark Aarts explains where NPEC fits into the International communitty.

On that note the EMPHASIS project is now reaching the end of its exploratory phase and will thereafter hopefully provide a constant presence for plant phenotyping within the European funding landscape. The meeting included a promising discussion that suggested that the EMPHASIS legal entity sits outside of the Horizon program (and its successor) so the UK should be able to remain a full participant. Fingers crossed!

The remainder of the meeting was taken with an update from PhenomUK PI Tony Pridmore who outlined the aims of the network and the available funding schemes:

1. Networking Visit Funding. PhenomUK can fund travel, accommodation and subsistence bursaries to support short fact-finding and networking visits between UK institutions and between UK and international centres. This is an open call yet no-one has taken advantage of this scheme. Please consider applying for it!

2. Pilot Project Funding. This is the main funding instrument through which PhenomUK supports plant-phenotyping applications on behalf of UKRI-BBSRC. Network members can request £25K for these pilot projects and in the first round 4 projects were funded from 13 applications. Professor Pridmore was very clear to emphasise that proposals are only eligible if the project contains a technology-development component. Proposals that ‘simply’ support a scientific experiment will not be considered. The second round of applications will open over the coming weeks. These grants represent significant finance support for a nascent project so please consider how you might take advantage of this opportunity.

Tony Pridmore presents the next pilot project scheme

 Representatives from the four successful pilot projects outlined their plans, which are at different levels of complexity and progress. Dr Bo Li from UWE outlined his team’s early attempts to use microwaves to image fruit damage and root development whilst Dr Ji Zhou from NIAB demonstrated their plans for large-scale field phenotyping using drones. The full list of pilot projects can be found here

Ji Zhou presents his lab’s field phenomics research through Designing Future Wheat

 The PhenomUK community is characterised by excellent multidisciplinary relationships between plant scientists, computer scientists, data scientists, engineers and imaging technologists. The increasingly complex technical capabilities and development of advanced image processing is moving this field forward at a rapid rate. The major challenge will come in ensuring that there is access to these technologies across a wider set of academics, members of industry and even farmers. Hopefully PhenomUK will facilitate this process

Some work needs to be done with the gender diversity within this community as this meeting didn’t include any female contributors. This will hopefully change over the life of the project.

Claire Hayes is the project coordinator and would be delighted to hear from anyone who wants to get involved with PhenomUK!

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