Numbers, Meet Plants
Todd Mockler, PhD, is a systems-oriented guy.
He loved math and science as a child and “figuring out how things work.” He thought he wanted to be a medical doctor. After starting pre-med at Wesleyan University, he did a stint in a research lab studying pathways in yeast, which turned him on to working at the bench. After completing his undergraduate degree, he worked on human gene therapy at a biotechnology company in San Diego. During graduate school at UCLA, he backed into plant science: “I was interested in immunology at first, but realized one day that not everybody gets sick, but everybody eats.”
Today, Todd is the Geraldine and Robert Virgil Distinguished Investigator at the Danforth Center and cofounder of Benson Hill. He is renowned as one of the pioneers who helped marry Big Data to plant science.
The Story of Sorghum
The Mockler Lab is working at the forefront of sorghum research, but that focus developed almost through chance. Todd was working mostly in model plants in 2012, when he was invited to attend a sorghum conference as an external observer. “Sorghum is this amazing crop with innate drought and heat tolerance—I realized I wanted to work with it.” Today, 80 percent of the Mockler Lab’s work is sorghum-focused, both for food and biofuel.
The work he’s most proud of so far is the TERRA-REF project. Plant breeding is currently limited by the speed at which phenotypes can be measured and how efficiently actionable biological information can be extracted from these measurements. The TERRA-REF field scanner is an outdoor phenotyping system in Maricopa, AZ, equipped with sensors to monitor crops growing in field conditions. The data collected and analyzed in the project is being used to accelerate sorghum breeding. “In 4 years, we went from an empty field to operating the world’s largest agricultural robot,” says Todd. The project includes more than 50 researchers, 14 different entities, has sequenced 400 sorghum genomes, and established a data science infrastructure and knowledge base. As the initial project winds down, that infrastructure remains, and Danforth Center colleague Andrea Eveland, PhD, among others, have new projects that will continue to use it.
Birth of Benson Hill
The Mockler Lab focuses on the major environmental challenges confronting crop yield in light of changing weather patterns. In order to understand a plant’s relationship to the environment, you must first understand the inventory of genes and how they respond to the environment. Todd and his collaborators began with large-scale genomics and high-throughput phenotyping data, but quickly realized that generating mountains of data was relatively easy, but analyzing mountains of data was hard. With his bent for quantitative systems, Todd began working with the team to develop computational tools to make sense of the reams of data they were generating.
It was the summer of 2012 when future Benson Hill CEO Matt Crisp and Todd first talked. “Photosynthesis was known as an intractable problem—how to improve it? We thought applying this cutting-edge computational science could make the difference.” Todd became Benson Hill’s CTO. Today, Benson Hill is a leader in crop improvement with backing from Google Ventures, a new building on the Danforth Center campus, and more than 300 employees. Todd is now Co-Founder and Senior Advisor.