When Numbers Are Insufficient

- Dieter Mulitze

Determining what varieties or hybrids to release can be a multi-million dollar decision. The more data points breeders have available to help inform those decisions, the better. But data doesn’t have to come in the form of numbers. Some of the most valuable data for breeders is pictures. The old saying “a picture is worth a 1,000 words” applies even in the world of plant breeding, maybe even more so.

For example, vegetable breeders are tasked with judging or rating the brightness, color and shape of the fruit on a numerical scale. They take visual appeal into account, which is the same thing consumers do when selecting produce at the grocery store.

I once met a breeder in France who showed me about 7,000-8,000 photos, and each one was tied to the name of a hybrid. At the time, he wanted to be at his computer and to see all his data and all his photos together but couldn’t. He was viewing two separate databases. He explained that he wanted to see the data (final yield, sugar content, acidity and so forth) right next to the photos, which is much more helpful when it comes to visual appeal.

That’s one feature that makes our plant breeding software unique — the ability to combine traditional data with photos right there on the same screen. This may not sound very exotic, but it’s very practical. It helps speed decision-making and allows for increased efficiency.

There are more and more people entering the field from non-agricultural backgrounds, and we can’t presume they’ve all had courses in pathology. They have to be trained and taught. For example, if you’re evaluating stem rust on a scale of 1-9. What does a 9 look like? The leaf might be totally brown. But what does a 5 look like, and what’s the difference between a 4 and a 5? You can set these scales within your own organization and provide technicians a visual reference. You can link the photo to a trait in the database and assign the appropriate numbers based on the scale.

Photos can be used throughout the whole production process from when plants first emerge to the final crop or fruit to the actual seed produced. And if you’re working across multiple locations, photos can help trigger your memory about what you saw and in what environment.

In countries where companies have to prove distinctness, uniformity and stability, the use and compilation of photos can significantly help with the registration or certification of new varieties.

Regardless of where the decisions are being made, we know that they are not made in isolation; they must take into account the whole environment. That’s why you often hear the phrase “GxE Interaction,” or genotypes by environment. Don’t limit yourself to strictly numbers; photos are just as, if not more, valuable.