Engineer leveraging AI to help collaborators develop fungicides, prevent crop loss

March 05, 2024

Graphic showing crop over computer circutry

Plant diseases destroy 125 million tons, or $220 billion worth of soybeans, corn, wheat and other crops in North America every year. Now, a Mizzou Engineer is leveraging artificial intelligence to help collaborators prevent that loss.

Dong Xu, a Curators’ Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and the team are developing non-toxic, biodegradable fungicides they hope to ultimately commercialize. The goal is to give farmers a way to combat fungal diseases, many of which do not currently have effective treatments.

Xu is specifically using computational models to design biomolecules that are able to destroy fungi. He’s working with Gary Stacey, a Curators’ Distinguished Professor from the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, and a collaborator from the University of Nebraska.

Portrait: Dong Xu
Dong Xu

Essentially, his team is designing various biomolecules that Stacey’s team uses to conduct experiments to determine how those biomolecules interact with fungal pathogens. Xu then uses data from those experiments to continue to tweak biomolecules to enhance effectiveness.

“We’re applying several techniques such as biomolecular modeling and AI methods to see which biomolecules work best,” Xu said. “We use computer modeling for initial designs, and we give those to collaborators to conduct experiments to see which work and which don’t. Then, we use optimization techniques to keep developing better solutions. Of course, we need to do more studies, including studies in the field.”

Ultimately, the team hopes their techniques can lead to a general method that can be used for further application, including replacing pesticides to combat insect damage.

“Biomolecules have fewer side effects than chemical-based treatments,” said Xu, who is also Paul K. and Dianne Shumaker Professor. “They can be biodegradable, which means once they’re applied, they’re degraded and are harmless to the environment.”

The project, which has been in the works for more than a year, recently got a funding boost from the new Technology, Entrepreneurship and Commercialization Hub at Mizzou. The work is also supported by the Ag-celerator for Agricultural Technologies in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.