Todd is the Geraldine and Robert Virgil Distinguished Investigator at the Danforth Center and cofounder of Benson Hill. He is renowned as one of the pioneers who helped marry big data to plant science.

The Mockler Lab is working at the forefront of sorghum research, but that focus developed almost through chance. Todd was working mostly in model plants in 2012, when he was invited to attend a sorghum conference as an external observer. “Sorghum has this amazing crop with innate drought and heat tolerance—I realized I wanted to work with it.” Today, 80 percent of the Mockler Lab’s work is sorghum-focused, both for food and biofuel.

The work he’s most proud of so far is the TERRA-REF project. Plant breeding is currently limited by the speed at which phenotypes can be measured and how efficiently actionable biological information can be extracted from these measurements. The TERRA-REF field scanner is an outdoor phenotyping system in Maricopa, AZ, equipped with sensors to monitor crops growing in field conditions. The data collected and analyzed in the project is being used to accelerate sorghum breeding. “In 4 years, we went from an empty field to operating the world’s largest agricultural robot,” says Todd. The project includes more than 50 researchers, 14 different entities, has sequenced 400 sorghum genomes and established a data science infrastructure and knowledge base. As the initial project winds down, that infrastructure remains, and Danforth Center colleague Andrea Eveland, Ph.D., among others, have new projects that will continue to use it.


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Danforth Center Scientists Collaborate On A $20 Million Nationwide Artificial Intelligence Research Institute

Todd Mockler, PhD, will co-lead a research team applying AI approaches to extract plant phenotypes, from sensor data sets in order to accelerate crop improvement, with a focus on enhancing nitrogen and water use efficiency in major row crops such as corn and soy.
03-Sep-2020 11:05:52 AM EDT

What the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is looking into is how certain plants, like wheat and rice, activate different genes encoded into their DNA. If they can learn how a plant, say, responds to cold weather by flowering early, they can use that information to help produce an improved plant with a shorter growth period.


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