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PhytoVision: Beyond a Simple Measure

A computer-controlled camera system developed by Larry York, Ph.D., uncovers potential plant traits that could benefit forage growers through improved varieties. 

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Some plants naturally tolerate heat and drought better than others, and those are the ones that Xuefeng Ma, Ph.D., wants to use in his plant breeding program for a wheat that can be planted earlier in the fall on the southern Great Plains. To find those plants, researchers go through a “trait discovery” process, where they look for characteristics that may ultimately be helpful to farmers and ranchers. It’s a process that once required in-depth manual observation but can now be assisted by technology, including PhytoVision, which is being developed by Larry York, Ph.D., assistant professor, and Anand Seethepalli, computer vision analyst, at Noble Research Institute. “Phyto” is derived from the Greek word for plant.

PhytoVision takes pictures of plants in various growing conditions using a computer-controlled camera with a software program, called Imager, the team has developed. Another software program in development analyzes the images and provides researchers with data related to the plants’ growth and health. From the data, researchers can learn more about which plants would make good parents for future forage crop varieties.

The more data researchers have, the better breeding decisions they can make. York notes that PhytoVision has been used to collect nearly 200,000 plant images, and the application for uncovering beneficial traits for improving crops is endless.

PhytoVision is currently used in three forms at Noble Research Institute:

In the Laboratory


Plants are grown in the extremely controlled conditions of a growth chamber to study the effect of a specific temperature on plants. Plants are then taken into a laboratory booth, where Phyto-
Vision snaps a picture of a single plant.

In the Greenhouse


Using the same gantry setup that a movie studio would use to move a camera across a scene, researchers use PhytoVision to “fly” over plants grown in the greenhouse. The camera is set to take photos at regular time intervals, and analysis uses the same principles used in UAV or drone imagery.

In the Field


PhytoVision is attached to a cart that is wide enough to roll over Ma’s small plots, where different varieties of wheat grow. Plant size and health will be measured over time for each of the plots focusing on the first few months of growth.