Presidential initiative creates team to develop smart plants
Iowa State University engineers and plant scientists are joining forces to design better crops that tolerate climate change, produce bigger yields and feed more people.
Mike KrapflZaki Jubery, a postdoctoral research associate in mechanical engineering, examines corn roots in a pressure chamber that measures the root system's water and nutrient flow. The collaborative effort to develop computationally engineered plants could have the same kind of impact on agriculture as biomedical engineering has had on medicine, said Daniel Attinger, the leader of the project and an associate professor of mechanical engineering. Plant engineering could produce better crops or new ways to grow crops, just as biomedical engineering has saved lives by developing artificial hearts, robotic surgery and more effective drugs.
“There is so much potential for engineering in living systems,” Attinger said. “Engineers and plant biologists can learn a lot from each other.”
Engineers, for example, are fluent in measuring flows of water and nutrients, running high performance computer simulations and visualizing huge amounts of complex data. If engineers don’t have an instrument to collect or analyze data, they’ll build one.
Plant scientists bring their own tools and techniques to the collaboration. They have a long history of breeding and improving plants, identifying plant traits, understanding genomics and studying soil and environmental impacts on plants.
In the 1970s and ’80s, plant scientists took steps toward the primary goal of the Iowa State collaborators: identifying the necessary traits for ideal crops and then breeding toward that goal. Such “ideotype breeding” wasn’t a great success at the time, said Patrick Schnable, Charles F. Curtiss Distinguished Professor in Agriculture and Life Sciences, the director of Iowa State’s Plant Sciences Institute and part of the plant engineering collaboration.
But Schnable sees promise in this new attempt to use the principles of engineering and physics in plant breeding. He calls the new Iowa State effort “a bold experiment at bringing new techniques and approaches to an idea plant scientists have looked at. This new collaboration is developing new science at the interface of plant sciences and engineering.”
Iowa State engineers and plant scientists launched their effort last summer with a one-year, $100,000 grant from Iowa State’s Presidential Initiative for Interdisciplinary Research. Iowa State President Steven Leath announced the initiative in the fall of 2012 with the goal of promoting interdisciplinary research, securing large research grants and building Iowa State’s reputation for innovation.
The plant engineering collaboration is already going public with its ideas and findings. The research team is sponsoring and organizing an International Workshop on Engineered Crops April 28-29 in the Hotel Fort Des Moines in downtown Des Moines. The workshop will welcome more than 100 participants, including some of the world’s best engineers and plant scientists, as well as representatives from agribusiness companies and government agencies. Workshop topics include genotypes and environmental interactions, plant physiology and nutrient transport, numerical modeling, imaging of plant traits and education needs.
Information about the workshop is here.
One thing engineers can do for plant scientists is help identify the best combinations of genes and traits for better crops. Baskar Ganapathysubramanian, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is working to develop computer models of how the environment affects a plant’s nutrient transport, water uptake, photosynthesis and root architecture.
Image courtesy of Ted Heindel/Mechanical EngineeringIowa State researchers are using X-ray computed tomography to create 3-D images of root structures within soil. “Instead of going out in the field and doing a lot of experiments that are resource intensive and time intensive, we’re coming up with a computational paradigm and throwing that into high performance computing resources,” he said. “This way you can go through millions and millions of combinations and figure out which ones might work.”
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