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Salk Scientists Utilize AI to Develop Carbon-Capturing Plants in Fight Against Climate Change

Faster annotation, training, and highly accurate plant structure prediction are made possible by SLEAP's automated feature identification, which greatly accelerates the research process, with major implications for climate change mitigation.

Saurabh Shukla
Salk Scientists Utilize AI to Develop Carbon-Capturing Plants in Fight Against Climate Change (Photo Source: Canva)
Salk Scientists Utilize AI to Develop Carbon-Capturing Plants in Fight Against Climate Change (Photo Source: Canva)

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), combating climate change and slowing the rise in global temperatures now depend on removing carbon from the atmosphere. To address this, scientists at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies' have launched a ground-breaking project to take advantage of plants' innate capacity to take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their root systems for extended periods of time.

Scientists at the Salk Institute's Harnessing Plants Initiative are using a state-of-the-art research tool called SLEAP (Simple LEAP, or Simple Labelling of Animal Ethograms by Pose estimation) in their quest to develop plants that can successfully capture carbon from the atmosphere and fight climate change. This sophisticated software, developed by Salk Fellow Talmo Pereira, was originally crafted for tracking animal movements in laboratory settings. However, Pereira has collaborated with plant scientist Professor Wolfgang Busch to adapt SLEAP for use in analyzing plant root growth patterns. This innovative approach promises to revolutionize the way researchers’ study and manipulate plant physiology for environmental benefit.

The study published in Plant Phenomics, Busch and Pereira introduced a fresh protocol for utilizing SLEAP to analyze plant root phenotypes. This innovative approach enables researchers to establish the most comprehensive catalog of plant root system characteristics to date, facilitating the identification of genes associated with desirable traits for carbon capture.

What sets SLEAP apart is its integration of computer vision and deep learning technologies, which streamline the analysis process by eliminating the need for labor-intensive manual annotation of images. By automating the identification of plant features, SLEAP significantly accelerates the research process, enabling faster annotation, training, and prediction of plant structures with high accuracy.

The development of a downloadable toolkit called sleap-roots further enhances the accessibility and reproducibility of SLEAP, allowing researchers worldwide to analyze root system traits across various plant species. Tested across a range of crops and model plants, including soybeans, rice, canola, and Arabidopsis thaliana, sleap-roots demonstrated superior performance compared to existing methods, offering faster annotation, training, and prediction capabilities.

The application of SLEAP and sleap-roots represents a significant advancement in plant science, with major implications for climate change mitigation. Researchers can find the genes causing characteristics that help plants sequester carbon by combining genotype and phenotypic data. This opens the door to the creation of carbon-capturing plants that are suited to particular environmental circumstances.

Professor Busch, the Hess Chair in Plant Science at Salk, highlights the transformative potential of SLEAP in accelerating research efforts to combat climate change. "SLEAP has been instrumental in our quest to create carbon-capturing plants," says Busch. "Its ease of use and efficiency have propelled our research forward, enabling us to make steps in designing plants capable of mitigating climate change."

Looking ahead, the collaborative team at Salk is committed to further refining and expanding the capabilities of SLEAP, with ongoing efforts to analyze 3D data and enhance the toolkit's functionality. With its open-source nature and user-friendly interface, SLEAP and sleap-roots are poised to revolutionize plant science research, offering a powerful tool for addressing one of the most pressing challenges of our time.

As discussions with NASA scientists explore the potential applications of SLEAP beyond Earth, the impact of this groundbreaking technology extends far beyond the boundaries of the laboratory, offering hope for a sustainable future on a global scale.

(Data Source: Salk Institute)

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