‘Genome to Phenome’ Research Community Wins Grant for Next Phase

AMES, Iowa – A new federal grant will expand the impact of a project creating a shared vision across research communities for crops, livestock and data engineering, known as the Agricultural Genome to Phenome Initiative (AG2PI).

The $960,000 award from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture supports phase II of the three-year Iowa State University-led AG2PI effort. The program won initial NIFA funding of $960,000 last September. Genomics to phenomics research generally explores how an organism’s genome, or complete set of DNA, influences expression of observable, phenotypic traits -- and often how these traits are influenced by environmental factors.

“The new grant is not for internal research,” said Patrick S. Schnable, project director for the transdisciplinary, multi-institutional grant. “Instead, this renewal will enable us to fund two more rounds of competitive ‘seed’ grants, allowing us to further engage the more than 1,000 AG2PI participants from across the US,” said Schnable, Iowa Corn Promotion Board Endowed Chair in Genetics and Baker Scholar of Agricultural Entrepreneurship in Iowa State’s Department of Agronomy and director of the university’s Plant Sciences Institute.

In its first year, the initiative awarded seed grants for seven projects, representing 15 institutions that included undergraduate and historically black universities and colleges, land grant universities and the USDA Agricultural Research Service. The projects covered topics including educational resources and gaps in agricultural genomics-to-phenomics data science across plant and animal agriculture genomics; optimizing 3D canopy architecture for better crops; and ethics, diversity and inclusivity in G2P research.

“This effort is a big tent, bringing researchers together from areas of expertise that are not always recognized as part of agriculture. The seed grants are one mechanism to encourage broad involvement and enable this expanding scientific community,” said Jennifer L. Clarke, director of the Quantitative Life Science Initiative at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and lead researcher directing the project seed grants. 

“Our next phase for the seed grants will provide support for emerging ideas, early development of promising projects and established projects that can help sustain AG2P cross-kingdom work. We plan to streamline the application process and emphasize early career investigators to encourage the leaders of the future,” Clarke said. “We will also look for proposals that address USDA priorities like mitigating environmental impacts of agriculture.”

In addition to the seed grants, the group has already convened an ambitious series of events reaching a global audience. Virtual field days, training sessions, workshops, a conference and a community survey have been conducted and more events are being planned. Most activities are recorded and available at the initiative's website.

Other leaders on the grant are: Iowa State animal science faculty members Professor Christopher K. Tuggle and Distinguished Professor Jack C.M. Dekkers; Professor Carolyn J. Lawrence-Dill, agronomy and genetics, development and cell biology, at Iowa State; Eric Lyons, associate professor from the School of Plant Sciences at the University of Arizona; and Brenda M. Murdoch, associate professor of animal, veterinary and food sciences at the University of Idaho. A stakeholders committee that involves nearly 20 industry organizations is being chaired by Iowa State alumnus David Ertl (’82 MS, ’84 PhD plant breeding), technology commercialization manager for the Iowa Corn Growers.

Receiving the second-round award from USDA this early in the project can be credited to the USDA’s commitment to the initiative and the teams’ rapid progress as well as demonstrated interest from strong institutional partners, said several project leaders interviewed recently. They also suggest that COVID-related deployment of virtual learning environments has facilitated broad, efficient delivery of the program’s activities.  

“This exciting effort to connect crop, livestock and data experts has many implications for accelerating crop and livestock improvement and enhancing agricultural resiliency,” Ertl said. “This becomes ever-more important as weather variability continues to affect farming operations.”

Two requests for proposals are planned, the first in Fall 2021, and another in Spring 2022. Eligibility for the program’s seed grants follows USDA guidelines, which require a research leader from the United States. Complete details will be posted on the AGP2I website, where there is a form for questions and a listserv available to receive project information.