By Qi Wang
Monsanto R&D IT Strategy Lead
Senior Science Fellow
Imagine a manufacturing plant entirely self-managed by software – billions of lines of code – and the plant is completely sustainable.
Self-managing because the plant could develop its own architectural blueprint, set its own foundation in the ground, raise its own buildings with hundreds of units. Sustaining because it could switch tens of thousands of manufacturing processes on and off based on supplies and environmental conditions, and when the products are finally made, it would shut itself off. Oh, by the way, every part of the facility is bio-degradable and it takes care of its own energy needs with a positive carbon footprint.
At this point, you might have figured it out – this plant already exists. It is the living green plant. It grows by itself, makes food for us, consumes carbon dioxide (CO2) and water (H2O), and releases oxygen (O2). It is self-managed and sustained with billions of lines of DNA code.
The fascination of all the work this living green plant can do is the reason I became a plant molecular biologist. My job is not much different from a software engineer; I deal with code (DNA code), and just like a software engineer, I describe the size of the code in Kb, Mb or Gb with one minor difference. The unit here is “base-pairs” instead of “bytes.”
When I started as a plant molecular biologist, part of my job was to read the DNA of a plant and select the best offspring out of each generation. Selections are based on how efficiently plants use soil nutrients, drought and pest resistance, and the amount of food produced per square foot of land.
In order to read the DNA code, we needed to get samples of the seed. We wanted to be careful not to damage the seed because we still wanted it to grow into a healthy plant – particularly if it was selected as one that could potentially make the best offspring. To get a little sample to read the code, I used a pair of regular tool shed pliers to carefully chip a tiny bit of material from the seed.
This was a fun job but incredibly inefficient. So our engineers set out to develop a solution that could efficiently chip away a piece of the seed without damaging it so it could still grow into a healthy plant. They were successful and today we use a machine to automate the chipping and even the DNA reading (de-coding) process. The seed chipping machine processes millions of seeds in a season, while we could do maybe thousands with my pliers.
One by one, the seed chipper images the seed to determine its shape, positions the seed in a way that minimizes risk of damaging the seed, and then takes a tiny bit of material from the seed’s storage tissue, which is similar to fat tissue in an animal. Removing material from this part of the seed does not affect vitality.
The storage tissue material is used to read the DNA code via a high throughput process, in which thousands or millions of reactions can be done at once to greatly speed up the process of de-coding the DNA. The seeds with desirable code are automatically selected for testing in various fields to check on soil efficiency, drought and pest resistance, as well as production of food per land. This process of seed chipping and field testing is repeated 20-30 times over 10 years or more before we can even think of bringing our products to farmers.
Solutions like the automated seed chipper machine are a result of the hard work and intelligent people I am proud to work with at Monsanto. I like to say that I have a lot of nerdy friends at work, but this is why I love my job. There is nothing more gratifying than seeing seeds – packed with years of our work and passion – growing in the soil into the greenest plant in the world!
Qi Wang is a Senior Science Fellow and the R&D IT Lead at Monsanto. He is currently focused on revolutionizing our digital agriculture platform to accelerate our research and development pipeline. Qi started his career at Monsanto as a plant molecular biologist and has had a passion for science from a young age.