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Crops in silico project

Project Overview

icon-solaricon-natureThe Crops in silico project fits into the iSEE research themes of Climate Solutions and Secure and Sustainable Agriculture.


The Challenge

As the Earth’s population climbs toward 9 billion by 2050 — and the world climate continues to change, affecting temperatures, weather patterns, water supply, and even the seasons — future food security has become a grand world challenge. Accurate prediction of how food crops react to climate change will play a critical role in ensuring food security.


The Solution

An ability to computationally mimic the growth, development and response of crops to the environment will allow researchers to conduct many more experiments than can realistically be achieved in the field. Designing more sustainable crops to increase productivity depends on complex interactions between genetics, environment, and ecosystem. Therefore, creation of an in silico — computer simulation — platform that can link models across different biological scales, from cell to ecosystem level, has the potential to provide more accurate simulations of plant response to the environment than any single model could alone.

As a leader in plant biology, crop sciences and computer science, Illinois is uniquely positioned to head this initiative. Developments in high-performance computing, open-source version-controlled software, advanced visualization tools, and functional knowledge of plants make achieving the concept realistic. The interdisciplinary Crops in silico (Cis) team will take advantage of resources in the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) and the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) — and its academic and research expertise in plant biology, crop sciences, and bioengineering — to build a user-friendly platform for plant scientists around the globe who are working on the food security challenge.

Project News

Matthew Turk and Amy Marshal Colón (photo by AJ Christensen, Advanced Visualization Laboratory, NCSA)

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research (FFAR) has awarded Principal Investigator Amy Marshall-Colón, Assistant Professor of Plant Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, $274,000 to continue her research in support of Crops in silico (Cis), a project to develop a suite of virtual plant models that may help resolve a growing gap between food supply and demand in the face of global climate change.

Marshall-Colón (pictured) will collaborate with Stephen P. Long, the Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology; Matthew Turk, Assistant Professor of Information Sciences, Assistant Research Professor of Astronomy and National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) Research Scientist (also pictured); Christine Kirkpatrick, Executive Director of the National Data Service; and Jonathan Lynch, University Distinguished Professor of Plant Science at Penn State University.

Team members will integrate above- and below-ground models of plants to create never-before-seen “whole views” of them. Then, they will subject these newly built virtual plants to computer-simulated extreme growing conditions — from flood to severe drought to increased ambient carbon dioxide — and compare the model’s predicted plant reaction to observed responses from field studies. This will help “dial in” the model’s accuracy.

The FFAR grant is the first given to a University of Illinois researcher.

Read the complete news release >>>

Designing crops that yield more food with fewer resource inputs is critical for future food security and sustainability. This is a tricky task for most crop breeding and engineering programs because of complex interactions between a plant’s genes, its growing environment, and farm management. New tools are needed — and soon — to help the global agricultural system meet the needs of a population climbing toward 9 billion in a climate that is rapidly changing.

In a Frontiers in Plant Science perspective article this month, a group of 30 researchers from around the world outlined a vision for a modeling framework that reconstructs a virtual plant — from the gene upward — that can accurately predict crop responses to environmental disturbances.

Crops in silico (Cis), as the envisioned tool is called, seeks a never-before-achieved level of detail, collaboration, and robustness in modeling. The goal is to create an open-source software to link individual plant models across biological scales — from a single cell to an entire ecosystem of plants.

Led by a team of plant biologists and computer scientists at the University of Illinois, more than 50 experts in modeling plant processes, computation, and informational visualization were assembled on the Urbana-Champaign campus in spring 2016 to discuss the challenges of achieving this revolutionary tool for crop research.

The Frontiers article is a synthesis of thoughts from the keynote speeches and plenary sessions at that event.

The writers acknowledge the many challenges to forming a comprehensive, integrative, internationally used modeling tool. For one, the models they hope to combine are written in a variety of coding languages and have different methods of documentation, making communication challenging. Also, many datasets that would benefit the whole modeling community are privately held.

To overcome these challenges, they highlight a four-part roadmap to success:

  1. Form a diverse and trusting research community of biologists, modelers, and visualization experts. Researchers can then more easily share data sets and work together to develop standards for models that can easily talk to one another;
  2. Build a framework capable of hosting and combining individual models. The Cis platform is intended to be the user interface from which researchers will view and launch models, libraries, data repositories, and so forth;
  3. Define a shared vocabulary, coding style, and translation guides to help unite diverse crop models into one program; and
  4. Nurture both the tool and cultivate its community of supporters and users. Annual meetings of the community, formation of a supporting nonprofit organization, and securing both federal and private funding will be essential to long-term success.

“The Cis initiative has the potential to be a powerful discovery tool in which dozens of simulations across multiple scenarios can be accomplished in a few hours,” the authors wrote.

Beyond a technological breakthrough, the Cis team also aims to achieve a research community shift.

“We believe Crops in silico will unite largely isolated efforts into a connected and collaborative community that can take full advantage of advances in computation science and mechanistic understanding of plant processes and their responses to the environment,” said lead author and Plant Biology Assistant Professor Amy Marshall-Colón, a Principal Investigator in the Crops in silico project at Illinois.

The Cis project was seed-funded in 2015 by a $350,000 grant from the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment (iSEE) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The Crops in silico symposium was supported by iSEE, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB), the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology, and the Departments of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology and the Olga G. Nalbandov Lecture Funds. Read more on the project page on iSEE’s website, or visit the Cis homepage at

To see the full perspective article on Cis, visit the Frontiers in Plant Science website.

The 2017 Crops in silico Symposium & Workshop is set for June 26-28 at the University of Oxford, UK. This second annual gathering is for experts in experimentation, agronomy, physiology, plant development, phenotyping, as well as experts in computational modeling, software development, and data visualization. The event aims to harness the great strides in understanding of plant function from genes to whole plants, to accelerate forward approaches to crop breeding and bioengineering. Read more on the Cis website >>>

Registration is now open. Visit the Oxford website to register >>>

Previous Event

The 2016 Plants in silico Symposium & Workshop — which brought together local, national, and international experts to exchange information and collaborate on a course for achieving plants in silico — was May 18-20 at the National Center for Supercomputer Applications (NCSA) on the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois. It featured presentations by leading experts in modeling plant processes, top scientists in achieving in silico representation of other organisms, and computational scientists. Read more about the 2016 event >>>

PrintiSEE, NCSA, and the Crops in silico team are grateful for a generous gift from the Olga G. Nalbandov Lecture Fund, which helped to make the event possible. Other contributors: the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB); the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES); the Department of Crop Sciences; the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB); the Department of Plant Biology; and the Genomic Ecology of Global Change Theme at IGB.

Read Project Manager Rachel Shekar’s post-event write-up on The Global Plant Council blog.


Cis co-PI Amy Marshall-Colón and team member AJ Christensen, a National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) Visualization Programmer, attended the Global Open Data For Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) Summit in September 2016 in New York. Marshall-Colón and Christensen created a writeup on the summit and a mini-documentary on the power of visualization and digital labs in helping to solve the impending world food crisis.



Read more on the NCSA website >>>

Rendered plant- and canopy-level data from the Psi system-level model.

Rendered plant- and canopy-level data from the Cis system-level model.


In the past year, some technical developments …

  • Cis has developed multiple models:
    1. a molecular model of At1, a key nitrate transporter;
    2. a gene-level model of the effects of changing nitrate uptake rate and cellular concentrations on transcript and metabolite levels;
    3. a gene-level model of the effects of changing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations on transcript and metabolite levels;
    4. a metabolic model that simulates the processes of photosynthesis under elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations;
    5. a system-level model that simulates carbon partitioning between the leaf and roots, and sugar-starch portioning under elevated atmospheric CO2 concentrations;
    6. a solar light absorption model using bi-directional path tracing.
      Photo by Haley Ahlers Data for the system-level model was derived from soybean trials on the University of Illinois South Farms.

      Photo by Haley Ahlers
      Data for the system-level model was derived from soybean trials on the University of Illinois South Farms.

  • Cis has rendered plant- and canopy- level data derived from the system model and measured field data of soybean over the course of a growing season. This data includes phenotypic differences between soybean growing under ambient and elevated atmospheric CO2.
  • Cis constructed a run-time communications system for integration. The system provides global control, logging, and debugging support and permits new models to be integrated without requiring change to existing models. The metabolic and bio-system models are on line, with others being added as they become ready for testing.

The Team

Members of the Psi team include: Back: Yiwen Xu, Venkat Srinivasan, David Raila, John Hart Middle: Steve Long, Donna Cox, Rachel Shekar, James O’Dwyar, Diwakar Shukla Front: Yu Wang, Balaji Panneerselvam, Amy Marshall-Colon

Members of the Cis team include:
Back — Yiwen Xu, Venkat Srinivasan, David Raila, John Hart
Middle —Steve Long, Donna Cox, Rachel Shekar, James O’Dwyar, Diwakar Shukla
Front — Yu Wang, Balaji Panneerselvam, Amy Marshall-Colon

Principal Investigators and co-PIs

Operating Team

  • Kalina Borkiewicz, Visualization Programmer, Advanced Visualization Lab, NCSA (not pictured). Her departmental page.
  • ChristensenAJ Christensen, Visualization Programmer, Advanced Visualization Lab, NCSA (right). The AVL team page.
  • Apollo Ellis, Ph.D. Candidate in Computer Science (not pictured). His webpage.
  • Kavya Kannan, Ph.D. Candidate in Plant Biology (not pictured). Read more about Kavya and her work >>>
  • Balaji Panneerselvam, Postdoctoral Researcher in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (in group photo above).
  • David Raila, Senior Research Programmer for NCSA National Data Service (in group photo above). His NCSA page.
  • shrivastavaStuti Shrivastava, Ph.D. Candidate in Plant Biology (right). Her NCSA page. Read more about Stuti and her work >>>
  • Venkat Srinivasan, Postdoctoral Researcher at Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (in group photo above). His lab page.
  • Yu Wang, Postdoctoral Researcher at Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (in group photo above). Her lab page.
  • Yiwen Xu, M.S. Candidate in Computer Science (in group photo above).


Project Manager

  • Rachel Shekar, Grant Program Manager (in group photo above).




Publications & Presentations

(iSEE project members’ names in bold)

  • Presentation and video: How Supercomputers and Visualization Can Help the Global Food Crisis,” Global Open Data for Agriculture and Nutrition (GODAN) Summit, New York, NY, September 2016.
  • Presentation: “In-silico Model Integration of Nitrogen Transporter, NRT1.1 with Nitrogen Responsive Transcription Factor Network,” Shrivastava, S. Poster session at the Plant Biology 2016 Meeting in Austin, TX, July 2016.
  • Presentation: “In-silico Predictions of Conformational States of Plant and Bacterial Transporters,” Selvam, B., Mittal, S., Shukla, D. Poster session at the Plant Biology 2016 Meeting in Austin, TX, July 2016.

Read More about Cis …

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