AI is transforming plant science by enabling the collection and analysis of vast data volumes


  • Researchers at the University of Zurich (UZH) have harnessed AI, big data, and machine learning to revolutionize plant science.
  • PlantServation, developed under UZH’s URPP “Evolution in Action,” enables precise, non-invasive, and scalable plant observations in natural settings.
  • Four million images of Arabidopsis plants were analyzed to reveal how they respond to environmental changes.
  • PlantServation supports the study of polyploid species and confirms long-standing evolutionary hypotheses.
  • Its hardware and software are versatile, extendable to remote locations, and have broad applications beyond Arabidopsis.
  • A collaborative effort with LPIXEL and Japanese research institutes received funding from multiple sources, including SNSF.
  • UZH’s strategic partnership with Kyoto University, exemplified by “PlantServation,” fosters high-impact research collaborations.

Main AI News:

In the realm of plant science, a groundbreaking transformation is underway as artificial intelligence (AI) reshapes the way we gather and analyze vast troves of data. Traditional methods have been dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of information AI can harness, and researchers at the prestigious University of Zurich (UZH) have demonstrated this paradigm shift in their experimental garden. Through a combination of big data, machine learning, and meticulous field observations, they’ve unveiled how plants react and adapt to changes in their environment.

As our world grapples with the escalating challenges of climate change, understanding how flora can not only survive but flourish amidst shifting conditions becomes paramount. Historically, laboratories conducted experiments revealing that plants respond to environmental factors by accumulating pigments. However, these measurements necessitated the removal of plant parts, causing inevitable damage. The impracticality of this labor-intensive method becomes evident when the need arises for thousands or even millions of samples. Furthermore, repeated sampling inflicts harm upon the plants, distorting our ability to gauge their true reactions to environmental shifts. In essence, a reliable method for long-term, non-invasive observation of individual plants within ecosystems remained elusive. As Reiko Akiyama, the study’s lead author, asserts, “The existing approaches simply couldn’t meet our needs.”

Enter the University of Zurich’s University Research Priority Program (URPP) “Evolution in Action,” which provided the catalyst for a team of visionary researchers to pioneer a groundbreaking solution. This innovative approach, aptly named PlantServation, integrates robust image-capturing technology with cutting-edge deep learning software, capable of analyzing field images across all weather conditions.

Millions of images: A treasure trove for evolutionary hypotheses

PlantServation’s potential began to shine as the researchers embarked on a mission to collect top-view images of Arabidopsis plants in UZH’s Irchel Campus experimental plots. Over the course of three field seasons spanning five months from fall to spring, more than four million images were systematically analyzed using machine learning. The data painted a vivid picture of species-specific pigment accumulation known as “anthocyanin” in response to seasonal and annual fluctuations in temperature, light intensity, and precipitation.

Remarkably, PlantServation empowered scientists to replicate the outcomes following the natural speciation of a hybrid polyploid species—a phenomenon where a species diversifies through the duplication of its entire genome. This process, common in plants, has given rise to many of the wild and cultivated plants we depend upon, such as wheat and coffee.

In the current study, the anthocyanin content of the hybrid polyploid species A. kamchatica mirrored that of its two ancestors: during the fall-to-winter transition, its anthocyanin content resembled that of the ancestor species hailing from a warm region, while during winter-to-spring, it aligned with the other species from a colder locale. “The findings unequivocally affirm that these hybrid polyploids amalgamate the environmental responses of their progenitors, providing substantial support for a long-standing hypothesis about the evolution of polyploids,” declares Rie Shimizu-Inatsugi, one of the study’s corresponding authors.

From Irchel Campus to the far reaches of scientific exploration

While PlantServation was conceived in the nurturing confines of UZH’s Irchel Campus experimental garden, its impact transcends these boundaries. This innovative hardware and software blend, when coupled with solar power, extends its applicability to remote, hard-to-reach sites. Offering economical and robust hardware alongside open-source software, PlantServation opens the door to a myriad of future biodiversity studies employing AI. These investigations span beyond Arabidopsis, encompassing crucial crops like wheat and the myriad wild plants that shape our ecosystems.

The triumphant realization of PlantServation is the fruit of an interdisciplinary collaboration, including the invaluable expertise of LPIXEL, a trailblazing AI image analysis company, as well as contributions from esteemed Japanese research institutes at Kyoto University and the University of Tokyo, among others. This monumental effort was made possible through the Global Strategy and Partnerships Funding Scheme of UZH Global Affairs and the International Leading Research grant program of the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS). Additional support was generously provided by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).

Strengthening Bonds with Kyoto University

Kyoto University stands as a strategic partner to UZH, fostering an environment where high-potential research collaborations flourish. Thanks to the UZH Global Strategy and Partnership Funding Scheme, several joint research initiatives between Kyoto University and UZH have thrived in recent years, with “PlantServation” emerging as a shining example of groundbreaking synergy.


The development of PlantServation at the University of Zurich represents a significant breakthrough in plant science. AI-driven solutions like PlantServation not only enhance our understanding of plant adaptation in a changing world but also have the potential to revolutionize biodiversity studies and ecological research. This technological advancement could spur innovation and new opportunities in the agricultural and environmental sectors, ultimately contributing to more sustainable practices and greater resilience in the face of climate change.