Leadership and innovation in seed identification

May 2024 | Canadian Food Inspection Agency | by Dr. Ruojing Wang

 

Could you identify a plant seed out of hundreds of thousands of species, or tell the difference between the seed of a crop and an invasive species?

My name is Dr. Ruojing Wang, and I am a Research Scientist and the Head of the Seed Science and Technology Section at the Centre for Seed Science and Technology at the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s (CFIA) Saskatoon Laboratory. Scientists at the Centre specialize in assessing seed or grain quality and in identifying seeds of crops and weeds. The Centre also includes the National Seed Herbarium, Canada’s only reference collection of seed morphology for identification purposes – and one of the largest seed collections in the world. It includes over 21,000 reference specimens of plant species. The oldest known specimen, a sample of Larkspur seed (Delphinium bicolor), dates all the way back to 1869.

With a team of seed experts at the CFIA, we have developed the Seed Identification Guide®, a bilingual and online tool that can help anyone – including seed analysts at the CFIA and in private testing laboratories, as well as inspectors, botanists, farmers and landowners – identify seeds.

Seed identification is challenging even for leading experts in botany, morphology and taxonomy. But being able to rapidly and accurately identify plant seeds is extremely important to prevent plant health risks, including economic losses in crop production and negative impacts on plant biodiversity and agricultural resources. Effective seed identification is also a requirement of plant health regulations to facilitate the safe use and trade of seeds for planting, import and export.

 

The importance of seeds

We all know we’re supposed to stop and smell the roses – but have you ever thought to stop and contemplate the power and potential contained in a single seed? With the right conditions, what appears to be an inanimate object can sprout into fields, gardens and forests.

Plants provide oxygen, energy, materials, habitats and the foundation of every food chain on the planet. The diversity of plant species is also reflected in their seeds – they come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes their differences are barely perceptible. Being able to tell what kind of plant a seed will become is extremely important, especially when it comes to identifying harmful invasive plants. Seeds are the primary pathway for the long-distance dispersal of invasive plant species or noxious weeds, which can also be spread through global trade. Many countries, including Canada, are increasing the number of pest seeds in their regulations to help prevent the spread of invasive plant pests.

wild oat (Avena fatua)
false wild oat (Avena sativa mut. fatuoid)

Seed (floret) morphology of two oat species. On the left, wild oat (Avena fatua) is a noxious weed under the Seeds Act. On the right, false wild oat (Avena sativa mut. fatuoid), a non-regulated weed.

Invasive plants in Canada

Invasive plant species can invade agricultural and natural areas, causing serious damage to Canada's economy and environment. In crops and pastures alone, invasive plants are estimated to cost around $2.2 billion each year, both in weed control and by reducing crop yields and quality. In natural environments, invasive plants can impact ecosystem health by displacing or destroying native vegetation, reducing biodiversity and damaging habitats for other species.

As Canada’s national plant protection organization, the CFIA is responsible for administering the Seeds Act, the Seed Regulations and the Plant Protection Act. The CFIA makes sure that any seeds sold in, imported into and exported from Canada meet quarantine or quality standards and are labelled correctly. The CFIA also helps to prevent new weed species from being introduced to Canada and works to limit the spread of noxious weeds detected or present in Canada.

Seed identification is an essential preventative step in making sure that growers, farmers, gardeners, landscapers and land owners are planting quality seeds of the crop they want, and not inadvertently planting or spreading weedy or invasive species.

Features of the Seed Identification Guide®

The Seed Identification Guide (SIG)® includes a long list of easy-to-use resources and interactive features to help users rapidly and accurately identify seeds – a task that was once reserved for only the most experienced botanists, morphologists and taxonomists. Some of the guide’s features are described below.

An example of an image provided in the Seed Identification Guide® fact sheet for Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum).

An example of an image provided in the Seed Identification Guide® fact sheet for Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum).

Fact Sheets

Fact Sheets provide users with images and descriptive information to help with seed identification. These fact sheets can help users accurately identify invasive plant species to help prevent their spread.

Users can browse the collection of fact sheets by family name, scientific name and common name, as well as by lists related to relevant regulations and seed testing accreditation.

Image gallery

The image gallery is a searchable collection of hundreds of seed images and illustrations to facilitate seed identification. The image gallery serves as a digital reference of specimens from the CFIA’s National Seed Herbarium.

Part of the image gallery of the Seed Identification Guide®, highlighting species from the Amaranthaceae family.

Part of the image gallery of the Seed Identification Guide®, highlighting species from the Amaranthaceae family.

Identification keys

The digital identification keys are an interactive tool to help users identify an unknown seed to the family level.

While knowledge of plant morphology is helpful to use the keys, the tool has been designed to be easy to use for anyone interested in seed identification.

The identification key in the Seed Identification Guide®.

The identification key in the Seed Identification Guide®.

Unlike the traditional dichotomous keys used for plant and seed identification, this character-driven tool allows the user to choose from a selection of descriptive features that best fit the seed or fruit in hand. The number of potential families decreases with each selection as the user works through the ID key. A user guide is available to describe how to interact with each pane of the identification key.

Online Self-training

A resource portal is available for registered users to access seed ID quizzes, training, webinar recordings, posters, seed testing rules and an expert-assisted discussion forum.

Expanding the Guide

Authors are invited to contribute factsheets, images or other identification tools to the SIG to support seed identification for weeds, crops and wild plants. A publication guide and data protocols are available online. For information on how to contribute or on author workshops, contact the SIG editorial board.

Next Steps

Since it was initiated in 2009, and following the launch of the SIG website in 2016, the tool continues to expand in terms of species included, applications, user functionalities and the number of contributing authors.

One of the aims of the tool is to increase opportunities for global collaboration amongst seed scientists. The SIG team is always looking to develop author pools from different parts of the world to increase the diversity and availability of plant species included in the guide. The tool also provides a collaborative platform for publishing resources on species of interest to organizations including the International Seed Testing Association (ISTA), the Association of Official Seed Analysts (AOSA), government departments and agencies and plant health research organizations, like Euphresco.

Harnessing the power of artificial intelligence for seed identification

Another exciting project at the Centre for Seed Science and Technology is looking at applications of artificial intelligence (AI) to support seed identification. Currently, the work required for seed testing labs to identify seeds down to the species level can be very time-consuming and requires special expertise. AI has the potential to support rapid and reliable seed identification.

The round multispectral imager helps determine physical and chemical characteristics of seed or grain samples and uses Nachet’s artificial intelligence system to automate physical purity analysis.

The round multispectral imager helps determine physical and chemical characteristics of seed or grain samples and uses Nachet’s artificial intelligence system to automate physical purity analysis.

Nachet is a web application developed in-house at the CFIA by the Agency’s AI Laboratory in collaboration with the Saskatoon Laboratory. Nachet uses open code, public data, artificial intelligence and computer vision to provide lab analysts with the ability to quickly identify seed species with a single click. The system is trained by many seed images captured through microscopes, and uses computer vision and AI to identify various seed species with great accuracy.

Nachet’s interface is focused on simplicity and ease of use. Analysts can quickly capture or upload seed images to begin identifying them with minimal training required on how to use the application. Once the image is uploaded for appraisal, Nachet’s AI quickly recognizes each seed independently, outlining them with a red box, assigns them a species name and offers a reliability or probability score. Analysts can navigate between identifications or review saved images.

The Nachet interface showing seed images analyzed by AI, with corresponding species identification and confidence scores displayed.

The Nachet interface showing seed images analyzed by AI, with corresponding species identification and confidence scores displayed.

The goal is to make Nachet available to all CFIA seed scientists who can use this as another tool in their efforts to help stop the spread of invasive weed species. The technology could also be applied in other areas, such as identifying invasive insects or identifying pure seeds. It is a versatile tool that seamlessly integrates digital hardware and AI technologies, and is one example of how CFIA is applying emerging technologies with traditional inspection activities to increase efficiency.

Opportunities for scientists and students

The National Seed Herbarium regularly hires students for rewarding work experiences in seed science. Have you collected uncommon or weed seeds you would like to donate? Please contact the National Seed Herbarium.

The CFIA also encourages all innovators with an interest and experience in digital and computer technologies, botany, seed science and plant taxonomy to connect with the Centre for Seed Science and Technology. Reach out to me at Ruojing.Wang@inspection.gc.ca for more information.

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