Global Plant Council Blog

Plant Science for Global Challenges

Category: Future Directions (page 1 of 11)

An economist’s perspective on plant sciences: Under-appreciated, over-regulated and under-funded

David Zilberman

By David Zilberman, Professor and Robinson Chair, Agriculture and Resource Economics, UC Berkeley

When I started working on agronomical issues in the 1970s, the most exciting technologies were related to water, machinery, and harvesting. Plant genetics seemed to be quite a boring enterprise. But as I became familiar with the Green Revolution, I realized the importance of plant research, and that the golden rule in agriculture is to find the optimal mixture between biotic and abiotic technologies. As an economist working on technology, I started to realize that the past fifty years have drastically changed the way plant sciences are done, and the potential and value of their product.

The discovery of the innerworkings of a cell, combined with the power of computers and precision tools, has changed medicine, but it has perhaps the potential to make an even bigger impact on plant sciences and agriculture. I have been working on the economics and policy aspects of agricultural biotechnology (see also Journal of Economic Perspectives).  Despite the restrictions on genetically modified varieties, they increase yields and make food more affordable for the poor. They also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and actually improved human health (by reducing exposure to chemicals and aflatoxin). But biotechnologies have had limited impact because of regulations that limit their use mostly to feed and fiber crops, and the practical ban on use of GMOs in Europe and parts of Africa.

It’s clear that developing countries can be the major beneficiaries of these technologies. They can save billions of dollars and address severe health and malnourishment problems. Furthermore, applications of biotechnology on food crops can reduce food security problems and increase access to valuable fresh produce throughout the world. Modern biotechnology can provide tools to accelerate adaptation to climate change, and I am surprised that some of the organizations most aware of climate change don’t recognize the value of biotechnology to address it.

Modified crops such as Golden Rice could have major benefits for people in developing nations. Image credit: IRRI. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

 

Plant science research has already made major achievements using traditional and advanced tools to provide better varieties and improve the global food situation in a world with a fast growing population. There is a large body of literature documenting the rate of return of research, and much of the achievements have been the development of new varieties. The literature suggests that public research that provided much of the benefit has been underfunded, and its funding is declining. Thus, plant research hasn’t reached its potential.

Thus far, applied research in plant sciences at many universities concentrate on grasses, like corn and wheat, but underemphasize trees and algae. One explanation to the emphasis on grasses is the immediate economic benefits they seem to provide. With all the modern tools of biology, the big challenges and some of the most radical and relevant knowledge can come from the study of trees and algae within the context of forest and oceans. Studies of these specimens will enhance our understanding of living systems, is crucially important from a macro-ecological perspective, and from a practical perspective of finding new materials, new foods and efficient sources of energy.

Poplar is one of the most commonly used trees in plant science research. Image credit: Walter Siegmund. Licensed under: CC BY-SA 3.0.

 

I believe that society tends to underinvest in plant sciences, both because science is underfunded in general and because of the regulations of biotechnology that limit their use, as mentioned above. The contribution of plant scientists to address problems of climate change, deforestation, food security, and environmental quality are under-emphasized and under-recognized. This leads to less investment in this area, less contribution, and less student interest. But more investment in plant sciences may provide better understanding of their impact and how to regulate them, and provide more promising applications. So we are in a vicious cycle of over-regulation and under-funding that mostly hurt regions and populations that are vulnerable, and reduce our capabilities to deal with global changes.

To move forward, we need to have more enlightened regulations that will allow us to take advantage of this incredible science and big jolts in terms of support for research in plant sciences. Enlightened regulations would balance benefits and risks, reduce the cost of access to modern biotechnologies. They also would allow efficient and mutually beneficial transfer of knowledge and genetic materials across locations. Plant sciences is one discipline where the distribution of efforts across locations globally can be especially beneficial as we can learn about the performance of plant systems throughout the world. Therefore, investments in plant sciences should be distributed globally. For example, a major effort to raise funding for 100 Chairs of Plant Sciences around the world, especially in developing countries, will be a good start. It should be associated with support for student research, as well as forums the exchange of new ideas. And finally, new investments in arboretums and greenhouses.

Plant sciences have been providing humanity essential knowledge that enabled the growth and evolution of human civilization without much fanfare. New tools increase its potential and the excitement and value of research in these areas. Society needs to expand their support to plant sciences to enable it to flourish around the world, as well as enlightened regulation to gain benefits from the fruits of this research.

 

Putting Big Data to Work with ARPA-E’s TERRA Program

This week we spoke to Dr. Joe Cornelius, the Program Director at the Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E). His work focusses on bioenergy production and conversion as a renewable and sustainable energy source, transportation fuel, and chemical feedstock, applying innovations in biotechnology, genomics, metabolic engineering, molecular breeding, computational analytics, remote sensing, and precision robotics to improve biomass energy density, production intensity, and environmental impacts.

 

What is ARPA-E? How are programs created?

The Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) is a young government agency in the U.S. Department of Energy. The agency is modeled on a successful Defense Department program, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Both agencies target high-risk, high-reward research in early-stage technologies that are not yet ready for private-sector investment.

Program development is one of the unique characteristics of the agency. ARPA-E projects are in the hands of term-limited program directors, who develop a broad portfolio of concepts that could make a large impact in the agency’s three primary mission areas: energy security, energy efficiency, and emissions reductions. The agency motto is “Changing what’s possible”, and we are always asking ourselves, “if it works, will it matter?”. Getting a program approved is a lot like a doing a PhD; you survey the field, host a workshop, determine key points to research, define aggressive performance metrics, and finally defend the idea to the faculty. If the idea passes muster, the agency makes a targeted investment. This flexibility was recently noticed as one of the great aspects of ARPA-E culture and is an exciting part of the job.

 

What is TERRA and how is it new for agriculture?

TERRA stands for Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture, and its impact mission is to accelerate genetic gains in plant breeding. This is an advanced analytics platform for plant breeding. Today, significant scientific progress is possible through the convergence of diverse technologies, and TERRA’s innovation for breeders comes through the integration of remote sensing, computer vision, analytics, and genetics. The teams are using robots to carry cameras to the field and then extracting phenotypes and performing gene linkages. It’s really awesome to see.

 

This is run by the U.S. Department of Energy. How does TERRA tie into energy?

The United States has a great potential to generate biomass for conversion to cellulosic ethanol, but the crops useful for producing this biomass have not seen the improvement that others, such as soybeans or maize, have had. TERRA is focused on sorghum, which is a productive and resilient crop with existing commercial infrastructure that can yield advanced biomass on marginal lands. In addition, sorghum is a key food and feed crop, and the rest of the world will benefit from these advancements.

 

How does TERRA address the challenge of phenotyping in the field?

The real challenges that remain are in calibrating the sensor output and generating biological insight. A colleague from the United Kingdom, Tony Pridmore, captured the thought well, saying “Photography is not phenotying.” It’s generally easy to take the pictures — unless it’s very windy, the aerial platforms can pass over any crop, and the ground platforms are based on proven agricultural equipment. To get biological insights however, each team requires an analytics component, and a team from IBM is contributing their analytics expertise in collaboration with Purdue University.

 

 

What is most exciting about the TERRA program?

We commissioned the world’s biggest agricultural field robot, which phenotypes year-round. The six teams have successfully built other lightweight platforms involving tractors, rovers, mini-bots, and fixed and rotary wing unmanned aerial vehicles. It’s exciting to see some of the most advanced technologies move so quickly into the hands of great geneticists. The amazing thing is how quickly the teams have started generating phenotyping data. I expected it to take years before we got to this point, but the teams are knocking it out of the park, and we are entering into full-blown breeding systems deployment.

 

Who’s on the TERRA teams? How did you build the program?

ARPA-E system teams include large businesses, startups, and university groups. The program was built to have a full portfolio of diverse sensor suites, robotic platform types (ground and aerial), analytics approaches, and geographic breadth. Because breeders are working for a particular target population of environments, different phenotypes are valued differently across the various geographies. For that reason, each group is collecting its own set of phenotypes. Beyond that, we’ve worked very hard to encourage collaboration across the teams and have an exciting GxE (genotype x environment) experiment running, where several teams plant the same germplasm across multiple geographies. By combining this with high-throughput phenotyping, the teams are in a good position to determine key environmental inputs to various traits.

 

Once we achieve rapid-fire field phenotyping, what’s next?

We’re going underground! ARPA-E has made another targeted investment, this time in root phenotyping. We’re really excited about this one. It’s a very similar concept, but the sensing is so much harder. The teams have collaborated with medical, mining, aerospace, and defense communities for technologies that can allow us to observe root and soil systems in the field to allow breeders to improve crops.  Ask us again next year—we will have some cool updates to both programs!

Potatoes, allies on Earth and on Mars

By
Zoraida Portillo (Perú)

[LIMA] A joint initiative between NASA and the International Potato Centre (CIP), which is based in Peru, offers scientific evidence that it is possible to grow at least four types of potatoes on Mars.

A scenario starring the root crop was portrayed in the movie “The Martian” (2015), in which a lost astronaut, played by Matt Damon, survives on potatoes he cultivates on the red planet while awaiting rescue.

But in addition to this interplanetary possibility, scientists also observed the crop is genetically suited to adapting to the changes creating more adverse environmental conditions on Earth.

So before turning fiction into reality, the tuber has a mission on Earth.

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In the movie “The Martian”, Matt Damon survives eating the potatoes he cultivates on Martian soil. Credit: 20th Century Fox.

The hardy potato quartet
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Scientists have studied 65 types of potatoes and have identified four that could grow successfully on Martian soil. Credit: International Potato Center / Mars Project

The study has identified four types of potatoes, out of 65 examined, which have shown resistance to high salinity conditions and were able to form tubers in a type of soil similar to that on Mars.
One of these is the Tacna variety, developed in Peru in 1993. It was introduced to China shortly afterwards, where it showed high tolerance to droughts and saline soils with hardly any need for irrigation.

This variety became so popular in China that it was ‘adopted’ in 2006 under the name of Jizhangshu 8. The same high tolerance was seen on the saline and arid soils of Uzbekistan, a country with high temperatures and water shortages, where the variety was also introduced and renamed as Pskom.

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In China, the Peruvian Tacna potato variety was renamed Jizhangshu 8. Credit: International Potato Center 

The second variety that passed the salinity test is being cultivated in coastal areas of Bangladesh that have high salinity soils and high temperatures. The other two types are promising clones — potatoes that are being tested for attributes that would make them candidates for becoming new varieties.

These four potato types were created as a result of the CIP’s breeding programme to encourage adaptation to conditions in subtropical lowlands, such as extreme temperatures, which are expected to be strongly affected by climate change.

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Women harvest resistant potatoes in saline soils in Bangladesh. Credit: International Potato Center

Down to Earth

In addition to these four potato ‘finalists’, other clones and varieties have shown promising results when tested in severe environmental conditions. The findings offer researchers new clues about the genetic traits that can help tubers cope with severe weather scenarios on Earth.

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Walter Amorós, CIP’s potato breeder is one of the five researchers involved in the project. Credit: Zoraida Portillo

“It was a pleasant surprise to see that the potatoes that we have improved to tolerate adverse conditions were able to produce tubers on this soil [soil similar to that on Mars],” says Walter Amorós, CIP potato breeder and one of the five researchers involved in the project, who has studied potatoes for more than 30 years.

According to Alberto García, adviser to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Peru who is in charge of food security programmes, this experiment “serves to verify that potato, a produce of great nutritional value, is a crop extremely adaptable to the worst conditions”, something that is very relevant for current climate scenarios.

García stresses that global temperatures are now rising at a rate higher than expected, affecting not only potatoes but also other crops. Many now need to be cultivated at higher altitudes — which, he says, is not always a disadvantage and may even be beneficial for crops that were previously cultivated in valleys.

papa-en-marte-7-by ZP.jpg

Credit: Zoraida Portillo

“But it can also have negative consequences that we have to anticipate,” adds García. Therefore, he says this experiment can inspire others to think about future scenarios and look for other crops than can adapt to extreme conditions that will have an impact on agriculture.

Similar to Mars

The project began with a search for soils similar to that found on Mars. Julio Valdivia-Silva, a Peruvian researcher who worked at NASA’s Ames Research Center, eventually concluded that the soil samples collected in the Pampas de la Joya region of southern Peru were the most similar to Martian soil.

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Julio Valdivia-Silva took soil samples at Pampa de La Joya, Peru. Credit: NASA/ International Potato Center

Arid, sterile and formed by volcanic rocks, these soil samples were extremely saline.

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Credit: Pampas de La Joya Official Site

 

Helped by engineers from the University of Engineering and Technology (UTEC) in Lima and based on designs by NASA’s Ames Research Center, the CIP built CubeSat — a miniature satellite that recreates, in a confined environment, a Martian-like atmosphere. This is where the potatoes were cultivated.

papa-en-marte-10-cubosat.jpg

The varieties were cultivated inside CubeSat, built by the CIP to recreate environmental conditions similar to those on Mars. Credit: International Potato Center / Mars Project

“If potatoes could tolerate the extreme conditions to which we exposed them in our CubeSat, they have a good opportunity to develop on Mars,” says Valdivia-Silva.

They then conducted several rounds of experiments to find out which varieties could better withstand the extreme conditions, and what minimum conditions each crop needed to survive.

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La Joya desert, Peru (left); Martian soil (right). Credits: Pampas de La Joya Official Site and NASA, respectively.

CubeSat, hermetically sealed, housed a container with La Joya soil, where each one of the tubers was cultivated. CubeSat itself supplied water and nutrients, controlled the temperature according to that expected at different times on Mars, and also regulated the planet’s pressure, oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

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Connected to a computer, the CubeSat supplied water and nutrients, and imitated other environmental conditions that would be found on Mars. Credit: International Potato Center / Mars Project

 

Cameras were installed to record the process, broadcasting developments on the soil and making it possible to see the precise moment in which potatoes sprouted.

Based on the results, CIP scientists say that in order to grow potatoes on Mars, space missions will have to prepare the soil so it has a loose structure and contains nutrients that allow the tubers to obtain enough oxygen and water.

In a next phase of the project, the scientists hope to expose successful varieties to more extreme environmental conditions. This requires, among other things, developing a prototype satellite similar to CubeSat that can replicate more extreme conditions with greater precision, at a price tag of US$ 100,000.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Latin America and Caribbean desk.

This article was originally published on SciDev.Net. Read the original article.

The Regulator’s perspective: Why some gene-edited plants are not GM-regulated in Sweden

Staffan Eklof

Dr. Staffan Eklöf, Swedish Board of Agriculture

At July’s New Breeding Technologies workshop held in Gothenburg, Sweden, Dr. Staffan Eklöf, Swedish Board of Agriculture, gave us an insight into their analysis of European Union (EU) regulations, which led to their interpretation that some gene-edited plants are not regulated as genetically modified organisms. We speak to him here on the blog to share the story with you.

 

Could you begin with a brief explanation of your job, and the role of the Competent Authority for GM Plants / Swedish Board of Agriculture?

I am an administrative officer at the Swedish Board of Agriculture (SBA). The SBA is the Swedish Competent authority for most GM plants and ensures that EU regulations and national laws regarding these plants are followed. This includes issuing permits.

 

You reached a key decision on the regulation of some types of CRISPR-Cas9 gene-edited plants. Before we get to that, could you start by explaining what led your team to start working on this issue?

It started when we received questions from two universities about whether they needed to apply for permission to undertake field trials with some plant lines modified using CRISPR/Cas9. The underlying question was whether these plants are included in the gene technology directive or not. According to the Swedish service obligation for authorities, the SBA had to deliver an answer, and thus had to interpret the directive on this point.

 

Arabidopsis thaliana

Image credit: INRA, Jean Weber. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

 

Could you give a brief overview of Sweden’s analysis of the current EU regulations that led to your interpretation that some CRISPR-Cas9 gene-edited plants are not covered by this legislation?

The following simplification describes our interpretation pretty well; if there is foreign DNA in the plants in question, they are regulated. If not, they are not regulated.

Our interpretation touches on issues such as what is a mutation and what is a hybrid nucleic acid. The first issue is currently under analysis in the European Court of Justice. Other ongoing initiatives in the EU may also change the interpretations we made in the future, as the directive is common for all member states in the EU.

 

CRISPR-Cas9 is a powerful tool that can result in plants with no trace of transgenic material, so it is impossible to tell whether a particular mutation is natural. How did this influence your interpretation?

We based our interpretation on the legal text. The fact that one cannot tell if a plant without foreign DNA is the progeny of a plant that carried foreign DNA or the result of natural mutation strengthened the position that foreign DNA in previous generations should not be an issue. It is the plant in question that should be the matter for analysis.

Arabidopsis thaliana

Image credit: Frost Museum. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

Does your interpretation apply to all plants generated using CRISPR-Cas9, or a subset of them?

It applies to a subset of these gene-edited plants. CRISPR/Cas9 is a tool that can be used in many different ways. Plants carrying foreign DNA are still regulated, according to our interpretation.

 

What does your interpretation mean for researchers working on CRISPR-Cas9, or farmers who would like to grow gene-edited crops in Sweden?

It is important to note that, with this interpretation, we don’t remove the responsibility of Swedish users to assess whether or not their specific plants are included in the EU directive. We can only tell them how we interpret the directive and what we request from the users in Sweden. Eventually I think there will be EU-wide guidelines on this matter. I should add that our interpretation is also limited to the types of CRISPR-modified plants described in the letters from the two universities.

 

Crops

Will gene-edited crops be grown in Europe in the future? Image credit: Richard Beatson. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

We are currently waiting for the EU to declare whether CRISPR-Cas9 gene-edited plants will be regulated in Europe. Have policymakers in other European countries been in contact with you regarding Sweden’s decision process?

Yes, there is a clear interest; for example, Finland handled a very similar case. Other European colleagues have also shown an interest.

 

What message would you like plant scientists to take away from this interview? If you could help them to better understand one aspect of policymaking, what would it be?

Our interpretation is just an interpretation and as such, it is limited and can change as a result of what happens; for example, what does not require permission today may do tomorrow. Bear this in mind when planning your research and if you are unsure, it is better to ask. Moreover, even if the SBA (or your country’s equivalent) can’t request any information about the cultivation of plants that are not regulated, it is good to keep us informed.

I think it is vital that legislation meets reality for any subject. It is therefore good that pioneers drive us to deal with difficult questions.

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