CLEMSON – The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization has predicted that the world’s population will reach 9.1 billion by 2050, prompting efforts from scientists to find ways to feed a growing number of people on a diminishing area of land.

The subjects of overpopulation and sustainable intensification – more production with fewer impacts – are two that Rebecca Doerge, the dean of the Mellon College of Science at Carnegie Mellon University, intends to discuss in her April 9 talk at Clemson University titled “The Future of Statistical Bioinformatics and Genomics in the Automated World of Agriculture.”

Doerge is the fourth speaker in the spring lineup of the TIGERS ADVANCE Distinguished Speaker Series, created to exhibit the extent of diversity among STEM scientists.

headshot of doerge

Doerge will speak on April 9 from 11-12:15 p.m. in the Watt Center auditorium.
Image Credit: Carnegie Mellon University, Mellon College of Science

Her educational background – jumping from computer science, to math, to human genetics, to statistics and plant genetics – has earned her international acclaim for research that assesses genomic-based questions.

“I did my Ph.D. at N.C. State University at an agriculture school, and that’s when I made the switch from human genetics to agriculture. At the time – this is like 1989 to 1993 – there were not a lot of statisticians working in genetics, let alone in plant genetics.  Somebody in agriculture with my background was a rarity,” Doerge said. “I went to Cornell University for two years for a post-doc because I wanted to hang out with the plant breeders to learn more about the genetics yet be surrounded by world-class statisticians.”

Doerge built her career from assistant to distinguished professor at Purdue University, where she embraced new technologies to investigate complex biological questions, like the varying characteristics of plants.

“Over the  course of my career, from 1995 until 2016, the technology kept getting better and better. Our ability today to collect and access high-throughput DNA and RNA – let alone epigenetic level data – is staggering. At the moment, the challenge is collecting an equivalent level and quality of data on plant phenotypes in a high-throughput automated manner,”  Doerge said. “Phenotyping – actually going to the plant and taking leaf samples, extracting chemical compounds, collecting DNA or RNA, or measuring details on root structure – is a very human-labor intensive process. For years, the amount of phenotyping that can be performed in the field or greenhouse has been limited  by the number of plants you can get your hands on and the number of hands available.”

When Doerge moved to Carnegie Mellon University to become the dean of science in 2016, she didn’t know how she would juggle her research career with her leadership duties, or how she’d incorporate plant genetics at a school that is not centered around plant sciences.

“But then I got a call from the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon, and they asked if we had any biologists that knew anything about quantitative genetics in plants, because they were building a robot that would go through the fields of Ethiopia to take measurements on sorghum plants.”

In robotics, Doerge’s aspiration to conduct forward-thinking science was realized.

“These robots can go through the field and measure with great precision anything we want them to measure. They can collect all these data, and the data can be beamed up to a satellite, and now suddenly, the piece that was the limiting factor – how many things can we measure and how precisely can we measure them – is going away,” Doerge said.

Clemson University geneticist Stephen Kresovich is the principal investigator of the collaborative three-year TERRA project.

Clemson University geneticist Stephen Kresovich is the principal investigator of the collaborative three-year TERRA project.
Image Credit: College of Science

A prototype of this sort of robot – called The Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture Phenotyping Reference Platform (TERRA-REF) – is already in operation. The TERRA-REF is large enough to scan a field that’s over an acre in size, collecting thousands of measurements a day that can inform breeding decisions in a timely manner.

“Traditional plant breeders that walk through the fields, look at their plants, pick the next generation of plants to breed, and then do the breeding have had a huge impact on improving heritable traits, such as oil content, yield and disease resistance. We are doing the same thing, but faster. We can make decisions faster, which means reaching our goal of growing more food on less land sooner,” Doerge said.

“Unless we actually use technology to do this sort of science, there’s not going to be enough food to feed everyone. We have to go to this level of science and technology so that we can improve the breeding, farming, production and yield of socioeconomic crops,” she added.

Doerge was invited to Clemson by Stephen Kresovich, the Robert and Lois Coker Trustees Chair of Genetics, and Leigh Anne Clark, an associate professor of genetics and biochemistry.

Her talk, which is jointly hosted by the TIGERS ADVANCE Distinguished Speaker Series and the annual College of Science Discover Science Lecture Series, will be held on April 9 from 11 a.m.-12:15 p.m. in the Watt Family Innovation Center auditorium.

A luncheon will follow at 12:30 p.m. in the Life Sciences Facility, room 142, for junior faculty in both the statistics and genetics disciplines who are interested in learning about Doerge’s career path. Contact associate director of TIGERS ADVANCE, Margaret Ptacek, to reserve a spot.