In order to achieve a high level of confidence in new agriculture products, researchers and developers need to examine new plants, or new materials' effect on the plant, and so they have to perform repeated field trials, where it is hard to control external influences such as soil conditions, climate or plant pests. These processes take long time and therefor it is hard to achieve consistent and reliable results. There will always be phenomena and data that are hidden from the researcher's eye.
Adopting new methods to accelerate research and development
This need for accurate and reliable information led ICL (Israel Chemicals LTD.), the largest global Israeli supplier of plant nutrition solutions, to adopt the Plantarray diagnostic system. Plantarray is a fully automated, sensor-based, phenotyping platform which enables scientists, breeders and researchers to quickly and easily perform simultaneous performance analysis of the whole-plant. The system measures the movement of water from the plant roots to their release into the atmosphere (plant transpiration), biomass accumulation, water and nutrients use efficiency, plant physiological key traits activity, as well as the environment and concludes how productive the plant is under various environmental conditions. It is used in a greenhouse as preliminary tests towards field trials, and by that enhances research detached from field disturbances. The technology was developed at the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
Hillel Magen, ICL's VP of Agronomy says: "The system is been used by us to test fertilizers - new and existing. It helps us greatly in the validation process of the research. When performing a field trial, you need to conduct a few trials simultaneously and at the same time try and filter the background noises, non-homogeneous soil, weather disturbances and other variants that affect the process. This is, inevitably, a long process, certainly when it comes to seasonal growth.
This system allows us, within few weeks only, to make initial selection, sort, exclude unresponsive candidates and decide, with high confidence, whether to proceed with the field experiment or return to the lab. This way, it shortens the development process, focuses and refines it, saving valuable time and money resources."
The Plantarray system at the iCORE facility, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Plantarray - a real eye-opener
When you ask Dr. Menachem Assaraf, the Center for Fertilization and Plant Nutrition (CFPN) Manager and ICL Agronomy Learning & Development Lead, and Yaron Beer, ICL Global Field Experiments Manager, what advantages the system has given them, we get a reasoned answer:
“Plantarray provides us with clear understanding on the impact of different fertilizers and biostimulants and what occurs in the plant level under specific growing conditions. This allows us to make decisions regarding the next steps in research & development and saves a lot of future resources. Secondly, the Plantarray platform is a kind of simulator system that allows us to define better the field experiments, and in the end gets us to market faster.”
“In the first experiment,” Beer recalls, “we had a very surprising experience. After a few days, we had statistical-analyzed results that gave a very fast push in the right direction. In regular trials, we would get to these results only after months of hard work".
Finally, they say, ICL invests a lot of resources to be sure that the products it brings to its customers are of high standards and that their usage labels are accurate.
"Even for existing products, the system allows us to discover layers that have been hidden from us until now. The ability to obtain absolute information from the system about the plant performance, and soil conditions, allow us to pinpoint and even refine the application guidelines of the material to farmers."
Assaraf and Beer during an experiment with the Plantarray system
Plantarray – a system you can trust
When Assaraf and Beer look back to where it all began, you can see that they are confident they made the right choice:
"We chose Plantarray over other platforms due to the system's ability to provide high-resolution accurate and consistent results.
We like the fact that each plant is an exact repetition by itself and receives personal and accurate treatment, which is maintained with the help of a feedback mechanism throughout the whole experiment. We examined other sensors-based platforms, but none of them had corrections on a daily basis.
Furthermore, the Plantarray system constantly measures and thus builds a huge database that does not exist in any other commercial system, which enables us to make informed decisions. Plantarray detects plants reactions long before we know how to recognize them visually. For example: detection of nutrients deficiencies in the plant, usually happens in advanced stages. The system warns us of this shortcoming at the beginning of the process."
They examined back then also imaging based phenotyping systems "We worked on a project using an imaging system with partners from Europe," says Beer. "Although the images obtained were very nice on a visual level, we could not get to clear cut understandings on the plant performance. For our purpose, the information obtained from the Plantarray system and the way the information is instantly analyzed to meaningful conclusions, is more valuable”.
“At the end of the day,” Beer says, “when we know how to isolate the variables, we can make decisions about the effectiveness of new products and re-validate existing products, which leads to improvements in recommendations to farmers and create better crop yields. That's what the system provides us with."