Roots & Shoots March Guest Blogger: Jeffrey Berry, Senior Computational Scientist

Until I was 22 years old, my family owned 88 acres of land in the middle of nowhere in Illinois. It was our little paradise. On this typical Midwestern farm we grew wheat, soybean, and corn. We had apple trees, a pear tree and a lake where we could catch fish. But my favorite thing about the farm wasn’t fishing or apple picking. My favorite thing standing in the middle of our fields and just looking out over all the crops. Sometimes I’d stay out there for hours. Or at least until my dog got bored and wanted to go exploring. Many of the people working here at the Danforth Center have a personal connection to agriculture and I am no different. We sold the farm in 2013 but there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about being there, looking out over a field of wheat making waves in the wind.

Many people don’t really think about all the work, effort and risk involved in growing crops or the significant impact on a farmer when something happens to reduce the harvest. We didn’t have many problems keeping our plants healthy and happy but there were certainly times when this was not the case. I remember one particularly bad year, when my family was stressed about how we were going to get the money together to keep the farm going because the yields that year didn’t bring in enough money to prepare us for next planting and pay the taxes on the land. Every family that operates a farm has experienced this struggle. It is a real fear, every single year.

Fast forward to today, where I’m working in Bart Lab at the Danforth Center. I’m part of a growing computational community where I focus in projects that aim to curb the problem of plant disease. But I’m not working at lab bench with pipettes and beakers like you may imagine a plant scientist would be doing. I work with bundles of 50,000 pictures taken in our Bellwether Phenotyping Facility and I look at every single one of them to understand how the plant is responding to stresses like bacteria in the soil. Of course I don’t do this by hand. I write computer code that looks at all the pictures and produces numerical data that I further process to produce growth curves. Doing this allows us to quantify how the plants are responding to the experimental conditions. I also work with DNA sequencing data to identify why, at a genetic level, particular bacteria seem to affect some plants strongly while others not at all.

We’re searching for plants that are resistant to pathogenic bacteria and we’re also looking for growth promoting bacteria, much like probiotics in humans. If we succeed in our research goals, we can develop crops for farmers that are more resistant to the diseases in their area, and probiotics they can apply to increase their harvests.

This work takes time, patience, curiosity and creativity. I feel fortunate to work with talented colleagues and have access to cutting-edge technology here at the Danforth Center. I believe we can succeed and help farmers in the Midwest as well as across the globe. And that inspires me every day.