Using the Electromagnetic Spectrum to Improve Crop Production

The electromagnetic spectrum can be exploited at multiple scales for the sensing and measurement of plants and crops. With the increasing pressures on agricultural production from climate change, soil degradation and biodiversity loss, the need for such technologies has never been so important, to help understand how plant traits can be improved to offer greater yields through better resilience to environmental factors.

The rationale behind this exciting “joint” meeting was to bring together scientists from the domains of both Rank Prize committees, nutrition and optoelectronics, scientists who in their usual academic circles may not normally meet.  The symposium explored how multidisciplinary approaches may improve current methods of crop production. Expertise areas ranged from plant and crop scientists working in pre-breeding, phenomics and agronomy to nanoscale biotechnology, ecology, neuroscience, astronomy and physics. The organisers were grateful to Rank Prize for their support in rescheduling this symposium, which was originally planned for the Spring of 2022, during the 50th Anniversary Year of the Rank Prize, but unfortunately had to be postponed, owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Attending the Rank Symposium gave me a different experience from the conventional conferences that I have attended in the past. It is an informal meeting that promotes networking, collaboration, innovation, and brainstorming in a relaxed environment. Such a unique experience is rare in scientific meetings.”


Abimbola Feyisara Olulana University of Sheffield

A core theme of the meeting was how state-of-the-art imaging and sensing techniques are currently used and what new sensors and technologies are on the horizon that could improve crop production in the future. An important component of the meeting was to explore the range of different technologies available at different spatial scales. The presentations ranged from landscape and field scale techniques such as remotely sensed satellite-based imaging, to medium scale lab/glasshouse phenotyping methods of above and below ground crop traits using optical, x-ray tomography and hyperspectral imaging, to ultra-high resolution methods at the nanoscale to understand biochemical processes using fluorescent nanoprobes and atomic force microscopy. Each of these methods are powerful tools in their own right but by combining them and capitalising on their complementarities they offer a deeper understanding of the functioning of plants.

Other topics of discussion related to how crops can be bred with enhanced abilities to access and use water in the soil. The use of thermal imaging to identify crops with cooler canopies, driven by greater access water and potentially better yields were linked to important below ground traits such as deeper rooting. Although measurements of root traits in the field are unfortunately still limited to destructive techniques, the meeting heard of new techniques that exploit radio waves and electrical resistivity to non-destructively visualize roots in the soil; these techniques show promise for future technology development. Machine learning and artificial intelligence approaches for analysis of multiscale image data was a recurring topic throughout the meeting highlighting its potential in increasing throughput of analysis pipelines and assisting interpretation of complex image data modalities. One application of this was in the automated identification of crop disease to optimise targeted management of pests.

A refreshing contemporary topic was the development of low-cost, accessible sensing and imaging tools. In the future, could such tools be enabled on a smart phone to measure plant traits such as size, water status or the presence of disease?

ECR Presentation Prize

The organizing committee were delighted to award the prize for the best Early Career Researcher presentation to Abimbola Feyisara Olulana for her talk on “Nanoscale Architecture of Fungal Cell Walls”. Abimbola, who is now a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the University of Sheffield, presented a comprehensive but accessible synopsis of her research area using atomic force microscopy: she clearly highlighted the key technological methods, presented her latest results and discussed how they may to help understand antimicrobial resistance in fungal pathogens of both plants and humans.

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The symposium recognized the contribution of physics-driven techniques in solving and addressing crop production and food safety-related challenges across all length scales from nanometric scale to meter scale. I presented our findings on the nanoscale architecture of the fungal cell wall. We utilized high-resolution atomic force microscopy (AFM) to decipher the detailed three-dimensional, molecular organization of the purified extracted cell walls of two non-identical pathogens: Zymoseptoria tritici and Cryptococcus neoformans. The former is a wheat plant pathogen and the latter is a human pathogen that causes severe infection of the central nervous system of immunocompromised individuals.

I am grateful to the organisers of the Rank Symposium for the award.”

Abimbola Feyisara Olulana University of Sheffield


Professor Mike Gooding (Aberystwyth University, Rank Prize Nutrition Committee)

Professor Peter Gregory (University of Reading, Rank Prize Nutrition Committee)

Professor John Mollon (University of Cambridge, Rank Prize Optoelectronics Committee)

Dr Craig Sturrock (University of Nottingham)