How 'Agricultural Intelligence' Is Using Tech to Fight Climate Change
By Karn Manhas
Wildfires across North America, Europe and Australia. Animal species dying out at unprecedented rates. Extreme weather events. Rising sea levels. Climate change, long an invisible menace, exacted a very real toll in 2018. But beneath the surface lies another, widely overlooked link between these calamities: the way we grow our food.
Agriculture traditionally gets a pass—the planet has an expanding population, and we all need to eat. But a growing battery of findings suggests the way we grow our food is not sustainable over the long run and is a significant contributor to environmental change. Our current food system uses 34 percent of the land and 69 percent of all freshwater, and it produces almost a quarter of global greenhouse gases. Runoff from farms is the leading cause of freshwater pollution. And agriculture is one of the most significant cause of deforestation, which released 4 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere in 2017.
But is there any real alternative? With global populations expected to surge to 9.8 billion by 2050, modern conventional agriculture with a more-is-better attitude—more fertilizer, more seeds, more pesticides—has long been posited as our best course of action. But when the very system that sustains us has also edged us to the brink of disaster, a reckoning may be in order. What's needed isn't a return to traditional ways or a rejection of science. Exactly the opposite. It's time for agriculture to actually embrace technology and the precision it affords.
A Shift in Agricultural Logic
Our current approach to agriculture can be imprecise at best and scattershot at worst. It's effective—but only if you look at isolated variables, like yield, over the short-term. To compete, farmers have little choice but to employ "spray-and-pray" techniques, blanketing their crops with synthetic chemicals, in the hope of increasing output. My family comes from the Punjab region of India, which is agriculturally rich, but also has some of the highest rates of cancer in the country. The indiscriminate use of synthetic chemicals in farming is not only killing the environment—it's killing us, too.
Modern agriculture is unsustainable because it largely overlooks the interconnected system that supports it. Industrialized food production has been designed in a linear fashion. Our obsession with output at all costs compromises the very inputs—air, water and soil—that make farming possible. What's needed, instead, is to embrace a circular, restorative and regenerative system. This isn't about laying blame. I spend my life working with farmers who care deeply about the land but are nonetheless limited by the tools at their disposal and the conventions of their industry.
Instead, it's time to embrace the potential of agricultural intelligence. The very same computing power that enables autonomous vehicles, speech recognition and globally connected services—technologies that harness and draw connections between vast amounts of data—is reinventing the way we grow food. At root, agricultural intelligence is about delivering exactly what a crop needs, exactly when it's needed.
Glimpsing the Future of Farming
Already, we're seeing a surge of startups developing technologies built expressly to gather agricultural data, sometimes at the level of individual fields. These tools enable farmers to respond to micro-conditions in perpetual flux and fine-tune how they deploy water, pesticides and fertilizers. Services like FarmShots and Vine View use drones to take high-resolution thermal images of crops to measure hydration, health and potential diseases. Drones are also being used for 3D mapping, seeding and fertilizing—all at a rate that far outperforms the speed or efficiency of any human.
Other innovations drill down to the level of the individual plant. The complex ag-bots from Blue River Technology (recently acquired by John Deere) use cameras, computers and artificial intelligence to monitor crops, detecting weeds and administering herbicide on a "see-and-spray" basis, in turn reducing herbicide use by up to 90 percent. Smartphone apps like Plantix compare a photo of a plant against a database of diseases and nutritional deficiencies, and then suggest a plan of action. Companies like Prospera expand on this concept, up to the level of whole-farm monitoring and management.
More exciting still is innovation at the molecular level. This isn't a matter of outsmarting nature; it's about understanding nature, so we can work with it. Machine learning is unlocking the intricacies of plant chemistry, paving the way for tailored treatments that reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizers. Soil samples are being tested by companies like Trace Genomics to identify pathogens and monitor fertility at a DNA level. My own company, Terramera, explores how natural materials can be paired with both organic and and conventional agricultural inputs to improve uptake at the molecular level in order to reduce the use of synthetic chemical materials, optimize plant health and increase crop yield. We want to help farmers be more efficient and do more with less.
I started Terramera because I don't want us to consume our way to extinction. We all need to eat—that's a first priority. But for those who love this planet and the people on it, it's critical to think not just for our generation, but for a thousand generations. That means we need to do things differently.
Admittedly, a global change in established agricultural systems won't happen overnight. But, in the face of climate change and mounting environmental damage, neither staying the course nor putting hopes in "back-to-the-land" approaches that reject technology is viable. What's needed instead is a willingness to focus on incremental change, balancing economic viability in the near term with an ambitious vision in the long term. Part of this is leveraging all the tools and partners at our disposal, from sustenance farmers to agricultural giants like Cargill and Bayer/Monsanto. At times of crisis, there's little point picking sides. We're in this together.
Agricultural intelligence can revolutionize how we grow our food, minimize resource use, optimize natural inputs and even regenerate land scorched by years of overuse. The aspiration is lofty, but not beyond reach: to give back some of what we've taken from the planet, while feeding ourselves in the process.
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
This Saturday, June 6, marks National Trails Day, an annual celebration of the remarkable recreational, scenic and hiking trails that crisscross parks nationwide. The event, which started in 1993, honors the National Trail System and calls for volunteers to help with trail maintenance in parks across the country.
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By John Letzing
This past Wednesday, when some previously hard-hit countries were able to register daily COVID-19 infections in the single digits, the Navajo Nation – a 71,000 square-kilometer (27,000-square-mile) expanse of the western US – reported 54 new cases of what's referred to locally as "Dikos Ntsaaígíí-19."
The Navajo Nation covers the corners of three different states. Google Maps
Growing Contribution<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzM3NDY5Ny9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjM4MTgyM30.IuQTKQs1stvYYKD6vaVTrqAyoBsUG0BhDvlhxsyKwPA/img.png?width=980" id="02a05" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2841f82b1785df5d5ed7bf64d3bb882b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
World Economic Forum
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World Environment Day: A Time to Consider the Planet We’ll Return To, and Decide How to Care for It Going Forward
It's a different kind of World Environment Day this year. In prior years, it might have been enough to plant a tree, spend some extra time in the garden, or teach kids the importance of recycling. This year we have heavier tasks at hand. It's been months since we've been able to spend sufficient time outside, and as we lustfully watch the beauty of a new spring through our kitchen's glass windows, we have to decide how we'll interact with the natural world on our release, and how we can prevent, or be equipped to handle, future threats against our wellbeing.
Scuba divers around the world are holding their metaphorical breath to see if a coronavirus infection affects the ability to dive.
DAN medical experts explained the difference between normal lungs, on the left, and "very serious lungs caused by COVID-19," on the right. Matias Nochetto / Divers Alert Network (DAN)
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President Trump's claim that the U.S. has the cleanest air and water in the world has been widely refuted by statistics showing harmful levels of pollution. Now, a new biannual ranking released by researchers at Yale and Columbia finds that the U.S. is nowhere near the top in environmental performance, according to The Guardian.
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