Apr 20, 2019 | Updated: 02:21 PM EDT

Scientists Going “Cyber” on Agriculture Grows the Tastiest Basil Ever

Apr 08, 2019 08:09 AM EDT

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three different varieties of basil
(Photo : U.S. Department of Agriculture Preston Keres/Office of Communications-Photography Services Center)


Scientists from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have embarked on a quest to make tastier crops. No, genetic engineering was not the method used. 

Rather, MIT's Media lab got busy with botany, machine-learning algorithms, and chemistry, taking agriculture to a whole new level.

In their Open Agriculture (OpenAg) Initiative report, a combination of the three previously stated methods resulted in what are most likely the best-tasting basil plants that anyone have tasted. Computer algorithms were used to determine the optimal growing conditions, maximizing the concentration of volatile compounds, which are the flavorful molecules.

The group is also concerned about the data that is publicly available to growers. The scientists believe that even if there has been a success in a number of private companies when it comes to robust farming, many attempts to replicate the process have failed because the information is kept tightly under wraps, away from the public's reach. Overcoming this kind of secrecy and, in turn, offering the OpenAg hardware, software, and data freely to the public is one goal of the group.

In their experiment, they have grown their plants in retrofitted shipping containers. This setting ensures their control over different factors that play a huge role in plant growth such as humidity, temperature, and light.
One of the biggest discoveries the scientists have stumbled upon is the "fondness" of a basil plant to light. They have found out that exposure to round the clock light gives basil the best flavor out of all the combinations they have tested, which includes the traditional way of growing the herb. 

 three different varieties of basil in a container
(Photo : U.S. Department of Agriculture Preston Keres/Office of Communications-Photography Services Center)

Caleb Harper, director off the OpenAg group and the principal research scientist in MIT's Media Lab, stated that the success of their study on the tasty basil plant is just the start of a new field of study called "cyber agriculture." As the said study concludes, the group had already started a new study in the new field. They are now using the methods they have developed to pick out the disease-fighting properties of different herbs, which the group is looking to enhance. 

Some methods of cyber agriculture already employed by top private agricultural companies include controlled environmental agriculture, vertical farming, and urban farming.

One of the current projects that OpenAg is working on is on hazelnut trees for Ferrero, a candy manufacturer and the consumer of 25% of the world's supply of hazelnuts. 

The group had also developed boxes that can be used to grow plants in a controlled environment, which they called "personal food computers." The boxes are being used in a number of high schools and middle schools across America. Data collected from these boxes are being sent to the MIT team as additional reference and information for other studies.

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