Artificial intelligence yields breakthrough innovation in crop science
Analytics and machine learning speed testing of new fungicides.
Protecting crops to feed a growing population
Boragen partners with SAS to fight plant disease, protect crops and boost agricultural production sustainably
People eat an estimated 100 billion bananas every year, making them one of the most consumed fruits on the planet. It’s hard to imagine a world without bananas – yet the possibility exists. The future banana supply at your nearest supermarket is under siege by fungal diseases. Black Sigatoka is one of the most destructive diseases to commonly grown banana cultivars. Like so many pathogens, it has developed resistance to current fungicides.
Bananas aren’t the only crop threatened by fungicide resistance. The problem affects global agriculture, with resistance documented for nearly 200 diseases. Without a solution, fungicides will continue to diminish in efficacy, resulting in poorer yields and reduced crop quality.
To ensure continued bountiful production of grains, fruits and vegetables, new tools are needed to augment sustainable agricultural practices. The most effective tools often merge ancient farmer know-how and natural products with new data-driven approaches. One example of this is using elements essential for life to grow healthier crops and protect them from noxious fungal diseases.
Biotechnology company Boragen is combining crop science with data science to spur sustainable fruit and vegetable production with a novel approach.
Better data analysis can help us uncover innovations that escape the human eye. SAS will be an essential tool for helping us discover more efficient and sustainable solutions to the most pressing agricultural challenges of our time. Dr. Tony Liu Chief Scientific Officer and Co-Founder Boragen
A novel approach with boron
Founded in 2015, boron chemistry discovery firm Boragen is on the vanguard of using boron to create new molecules for the next generation of crop-protection solutions.
Boron is a naturally occurring element in the environment and an essential micronutrient for plants. Boragen uses a unique boron-based toolbox to develop novel agrochemical compounds with potent broad-spectrum fungicidal activity with new modes of action. Its crop protection library contains compounds that have multisite modes of action to combat resistance while requiring fewer active ingredients than current products.
“Boron has historically been underutilized,” says Dr. Tony Liu, Boragen Chief Scientific Officer and co-founder. “There’s actually very promising chemical matter that can be created with boron for agricultural use.”
To understand agriculture technology is to appreciate its complexity. Getting any new compound from the lab to the field is time-consuming and expensive, involving several phases of testing. For proof of just how difficult this work can be, just consider the lack of innovation in fungicide development despite the urgent need for it.
For Boragen, data and analytics offer a tremendous opportunity to streamline the development of new boron-based compounds. The firm recently partnered with SAS to see how cutting-edge data science could be applied to fuel much-needed innovation in the sector.
“Better data analysis can help us uncover innovations that escape the human eye,” Liu says. “SAS will be an essential tool for helping us discover more efficient and sustainable solutions to the most pressing agricultural challenges of our time.”
Boragen – Facts & Figures
Boragen was founded
Predicting product effectiveness with AI
With agriculture analytics and artificial intelligence solutions from SAS, Boragen gets a unique service whereby the firm shares its research data sets with SAS, and SAS analytics experts apply AI and machine learning technology to identify areas for innovation.
Dr. Luke Steere is Director of Crop Protection and Product Development at Boragen. Early in the SAS partnership, he was curious to know what variables – such as pathogens and doses tested on in vitro data sets – could reliably indicate success on multiple crops in the field. His big question: What if Boragen could remove entire steps from its testing process and still achieve the same result?
According to Steere, the potential for streamlined testing offers the biggest opportunity, especially in greenhouse testing where space, supplies and employees are expensive. “If there’s something in our data that would allow us to get a promising new compound to the field more efficiently, that is our goal,” he says.
By applying SAS analytics and machine learning technologies to Boragen data, researchers were able to identify a lab success threshold that could foretell eventual field performance. This “rule” enables Boragen to better predict which chemistries will be more effective and should be moved to the next testing phase – and which can be abandoned – generating greater time and cost savings.
To illustrate this, Steere cited a scenario where Boragen looked at corn and cucumbers: “Using better data analytics, we could evaluate two separate cropping systems – a low-input crop like corn and a high-input crop like cucumber – with the same dosing structure for the same compounds. We could go back and look at the lab data, apply analytics and machine learning, and were able to find which parameters were most indicative of success in the field. This could potentially improve both the efficiency and accuracy of lab to field translation.”
For Boragen, this AI-powered research is valuable on multiple fronts. “SAS really allows us to streamline our testing process and brings us closer to introducing new tools the world needs to confront some of the most urgent issues in agriculture,” Steere said.
Advancement fueled by curiosity
Boragen is located in Research Triangle Park, NC, just a few miles from SAS world headquarters. Though the partnership is local, the potential is global.
“In agtech, everything you do has the potential for global impact,” Liu says. “Innovation to improve plant health would have a much broader global impact. I believe food is really the first and most important medicine in human health.”
While Steere acknowledges that new compounds alone won’t solve our agriculture sustainability challenges, his curiosity continues to fuel him.
“My passion is crop protection, and in particular, protecting crops against fungal pathogens – especially pathogens with a proclivity for resistance,” Steere says. “Given boron chemistry is a new chemical space, the possibility of unlocking the potential of these compounds is what keeps me motivated.”
Feeding a growing planet
With the world population expected to top 10 billion by 2050, Boragen recognizes the dire need for solutions to help feed a growing population in an efficient and sustainable way.
To this end, SAS will also support Boragen’s research into sustainable “bi-functional” products. These products effectively control crop diseases and subsequently degrade into beneficial byproducts that improve crop health.
By applying agriculture analytics and machine learning, Boragen can access another layer of inferences and insights into data sets, which further bolsters the novelty, efficacy and safety of the boron-based crop protection pipeline.
“We have already seen biological evidence of such bi-functional products being achievable, and sophisticated data analytics will be critical in guiding our research into this promising frontier,” concludes Liu. “We’re excited that SAS shares our commitment to transform agriculture through research and technology.”