The zombie garden tractor gets your attention.
The driverless machine can move through rows of sorghum, going for hours with only a GPS navigation brain to guide it. High-tech cameras, meanwhile, take three-dimensional photos of every sorghum plant it passes – a kind of Google Street View for fields.
More importantly, the unmanned machine represents Iowa State University’s push into phenomics, a research frontier that promises to reshape the way we grow the food and substances we count on.
Just as genomics researchers aim to understand a plant’s total genetic makeup – every letter in the long book of its DNA – and how it influences plant development, phenomics aims to understand plant phenotypes in similar depth.
A phenotype is the way an organism grows, appears and performs, given its genetic makeup, the environment it lives in, and how the two interact.
“What’s cool – and this is what makes it most interesting to me – is the interaction between genetics and environment,” said Patrick Schnable, an ISU distinguished professor of genetics.
Schnable leads ISU’s drive into phenomics research. He took over as director of the Plant Sciences Institute (PSI) in February with the charge to bring it (and the university) to international prominence in one or more research areas.