A decade ago, a group of crop scientists set out to grow the same plants in the same way. They started with the same breeds and adhered to strict growing protocols, but nonetheless harvested a motley crop of plants that varied in leaf size, skin-cell density, and metabolic ability. Small differences in light levels and plant handling had produced outsize changes to the plants’ physical traits, or phenome.
The plunging price of genomic sequencing has made it easier to examine a plant’s biological instructions, but researchers’ understanding of how a plant follows those instructions in a given environment lags. “There is a major bottleneck for a lot of breeders to be able to get their phenotypic evaluation in line with their genetic capabilities,” says Bas van Eerdt, business development director at PhenoKey, in ’s-Gravenzande, Netherlands.