Connecting silos: Iowa State University scientists call for unconventional collaboration in agriculture

AMES, Iowa – Iowa State University scientists have issued a call to action for researchers in a wide range of disciplines to turn their attention to some of the most pressing challenges facing agriculture. The unorthodox approach to collaboration could spark innovative new approaches to how farmers produce commodities and interact with the environment.

Carolyn Lawrence-Dill, professor of genetics, development and cell biology, said she and her co-authors hope their latest paper spurs cross-discipline collaboration. The paper, titled “Idea Factory: the Maize Genomes to Fields Initiative,” appeared recently in the academic journal Crop Science.

“If we want to come up with totally novel ideas, we need people from other disciplines,” Lawrence-Dill said. “We need to bring in people in sociology and business and philosophy and governance and all these places you don’t normally think of when you’re having a conversation about increasing yields, let’s say.”

Big thinking

The paper begins by noting that demand for food, feed, fiber and fuel will grow in the near future, and agricultural production will have to keep up while remaining environmentally sustainable. The paper then notes “diminishing returns” in the realm of new ideas that increase productivity.

“Ideas for how to achieve increased crop yields have become measurably harder to come by,” the paper’s authors write. “Many of the widely accepted, obvious ways to improve traits have already been identified and leveraged.”

This challenge requires researchers to think differently in their approach. The authors propose to meet these challenges with big, transformative ideas that go beyond the usual sources for agricultural research. That means sharing data across a range of disciplines, many of them outside traditional agricultural professions such as plant scientists, breeders and ag engineers.

Lawrence-Dill said researchers tend to stay within “silos,” with few opportunities available to collaborate with those outside their disciplines. The paper calls for a heavier emphasis on connecting various silos that can help to address major challenges in agriculture.

What other disciplines do the authors have in mind? Lawrence-Dill lists economists and sociologists as examples. Physiologists, biochemists, crop modelers, soil scientists, ecologists, climatologists, data and computer scientists and statisticians also have a place in the conversation, the paper said.

Genomes to Fields Initiative

The paper arose from Lawrence-Dill’s work with the Genomes to Fields Initiative, a public-private partnership founded in 2014 that aims to make genomic data related to corn as widely available as possible. The initiative has supported field trials and collaborative experiments at more than 20 locations across North America. Participating researchers have compiled massive datasets on corn varieties and their performance across various environments. The initiative’s work should help corn growers make better predictions about how their crops will perform, improving reliability.

Genomes to Fields has received support from the Iowa Corn Promotion Board, other state corn promotion boards and the National Corn Growers Association. It grew out of the completion of the National Science Foundation-funded corn genome sequencing project that identified the genes of corn, said Patrick Schnable, director of Iowa State’s Plant Sciences Institute, a Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Iowa Corn Promotion Board Endowed Chair in Genetics and the Baker Scholar of Agricultural Entrepreneurship. Schnable, who also co-authored the Crop Science article, said Genomes to Fields aims to increase farmer profitability, yield stability and environmental sustainability.

“G2F is using novel sensors and robots, in combination with predictive phenomics, to understand the roles of those genes that contribute to agronomically relevant traits,” Schnable said.  

Lawrence-Dill said inviting new perspectives to contribute to agricultural research projects such as Genomes to Fields sparks thought-provoking new ideas.

“It’s great fun,” she said. “When you bring in someone who works completely outside of your field, it’s never boring.”