Thompson Rivers University

TRU researcher develops climate-resilient crops

  Posted on: March 14, 2022

Dr. Yan Yan

TRU faculty member Dr. Yan Yan, from the Department of Computing Science, received a Discovery Grant in 2021 to focus on developing novel computational methods to assist plant breeding.

The important work Yan and her research team are doing will help predict the physical properties of crops that can withstand extreme weather conditions.

Next-generation approaches

Farmers and plant scientists are in a race against time in the face of climate change. Shifts in weather patterns and harsh environmental conditions like drought, flood and wildfire add uncertainty to food production. Because of these accelerating threats, researchers are breeding plants with more resilient genes.

“To ensure food security, there is a need to develop climate-resilient crop varieties, to design future crops,” says Yan. “We’re looking at how the variations around plant genomes, their genetic information, can affect the variations of plant phenotypes, their observable characteristics or traits. For instance, when plants are flowering, we want to know how they respond to extreme environmental conditions, including stress, heat and drought. We also want to know how they react to pests or diseases.”

Currently in the testing phase of their research, Yan says her team is using the data from lentil plants and wheat to create a model they can use for their work.

“The hope is that our model will be able to predict what kind of phenotype a particular sample could produce. We would also be able to tell which parts of the genome are more important and contribute more to the final output, which plant scientists will look at.”

Better crops, less time

The work Yan and her team are doing will also address challenges during the early phases of breeding — the need for time and land.

“You need a field to grow different plants and cross them,” says Yan. “So if we could use artificial intelligence models and computational methods to narrow down that selection process, even speed it up, that would be beneficial for us to have the high quality we want. Plant breeders will be able to look at different variations on the spot, and see how these variations will contribute to the different plant behaviours they’re interested in.”

Taking root

For Yan, BC’s unprecedented weather extremes throughout 2021 were a stark reminder of the timeliness of her work.

“Experiencing BC’s extreme weather is a major motivation for me to keep doing my research. The goal remains to find crops that suit the climate requirements, stay ahead of climate change and prevent food insecurity.”