The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture recently announced it is awarding $1.9 million to support the work of the Agricultural Genome to Phenome Initiative (AG2PI) being led by Iowa State University in collaboration with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of Idaho.
The goal of AG2PI is to help advance multidisciplinary crop and livestock research by addressing genome to phenome challenges, developing solutions for research infrastructure needs and sharing solutions across kingdoms. It aims to foster collaborations of crop and livestock scientists with colleagues in diverse areas, including data science, statistics, engineering and social sciences, to improve the long-term efficiency and resilience of U.S. agriculture.
Researchers working from genomics to phenomics explore how genomes (organisms’ complete set of DNA) influence the expression of observable, phenotypic traits.
The primary focus of the new grant will be to provide competitive funding for projects that will implement a vision for research the AG2PI has been developing with community input over the past two years.
“The pioneering work supported by this initiative is beginning to provide scientists and breeders with the tools needed to adapt agricultural systems to improve their profitability and make them more sustainable and resilient to climate change,” said Distinguished Professor Patrick Schnable, project director for the transdisciplinary, multi-institutional grant, the Iowa Corn Promotion Board Endowed Chair in Genetics and director of the Plant Sciences Institute at Iowa State.
The new grant is the third and largest award made through USDA NIFA’s AG2PI national initiative launched two years ago as part of the 2018 Farm Bill. The first, three-year USDA award was geared toward building a cross-kingdom community of researchers. The second award focused on expanding a small seed grant program to recruit involvement and innovation of researchers across the country. So far, the AG2PI seed grants have supported 27 research projects at levels ranging from $15,000–$100,000. This third award would further expand the grant program with larger, “coconut”-level (big seed) grants of up to $250,000, aimed at generating greater interest and impact.
“Achieving sustainable genetic improvement in agricultural species is a `wicked problem,’ meaning that a solution requires diverse and creative teams of scholars, producers, and stakeholders,” said Jennifer Clarke, lead researcher directing the project seed grants and director of the Quantitative Life Science Initiative at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “This award will make it feasible for such teams to invest more deeply to tackle related problems for the benefit of both agriculture and society.”
Nurturing researchers getting established in their careers has been one of the program’s goals: Of 142 seed grant team members and collaborators, about one-third consider themselves to be in the early stages of their professional career.
Since its inception, the national AG2PI team has sponsored or co-sponsored an ambitious set of virtual field days, workshops and mini conferences. Products from the initiative also include a set of white papers about related research, opportunities, gaps and challenges. In early September 2022, AG2PI co-hosted a hybrid conference with USDA-NIFA in Ames to bring together researchers and other experts from diverse institutions to visualize the future of agricultural genomes to phenomes work.
Although all USDA funds remain in the U.S., researchers from more than 155 countries have participated in the project’s field days and workshops.
“We are connecting with researchers around the world,” Schnable said. “While the AG2PI program is focused on increasing profitability, sustainability and resilience here in the United States, agriculture is a global endeavor, and science benefits when collaboration comes from everywhere.”
Other leaders on the new grant include Christopher K. Tuggle and Jack C.M. Dekkers, animal science professors at Iowa State University, and Brenda M. Murdoch, associate professor in animal, veterinary and food sciences at the University of Idaho. A stakeholders committee involving nearly 20 industry organizations is chaired by David Ertl, technology commercialization manager for the Iowa Corn Growers Association.
“This genome-to-phenome research will have far-reaching effects,” Ertl said. “It will allow breeders to create improved varieties faster, allow farmers to produce more resilient crops and livestock, and give consumers more choices for sustainably produced food.” “This genome to phenome research will have far-reaching effects,” Ertl said. “It will allow breeders to create improved varieties faster, allow farmers to produce more resilient crops and livestock, and give consumers more choices for sustainably produced food.”