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.

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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.

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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.

A taste of CRISPR

Dr Craig CormickThis week’s blog was written by Dr Craig Cormick, the Creative Director of ThinkOutsideThe. He is one of Australia’s leading science communicators, with over 30 years’ experience working with agencies such as CSIRO, Questacon and Federal Government Departments.

So what do you think CRISPR cabbage might taste like? CRISPR-crispy? Altered in some way?

Participants at the recent Society for Experimental Biology/Global Plant Council New Breeding Technologies workshop in Gothenburg, Sweden, had a chance to find out, because in Sweden CRISPR-produced plants are not captured by the country’s GMO regulations and can be produced.

Professor Stefan Jansson, one of the workshop organizers, has grown the CRISPR cabbage (discussed in his blog for GPC!) and not only had it included on the menu of the workshop dinner, but also had samples for participants to take away. Some delegates were keen to pick up the samples while others were unsure how their own country’s regulatory rules would apply to them.

 

 

Regulatory issues

The uncertainty some delegates felt about the legality of taking a CRISPR cabbage sample home was a good demonstration of the diversity of regulations that apply – or may apply – to new breeding technologies, such as CRISPR and gene editing – and there was considerable discussion at the workshop on how European Union regulations and court rulings may play out, affecting both the development and export/import of plants and foods produced by the new technologies.

A lack of certainty has meant many researchers are unable to determine whether their work will need to be subjected to costly and time-consuming regulations or not.

The need for new breeding technologies was made clear at the workshop, which was attended by 70 people from 17 countries, with presentations on the need to double our current food production to feed the world in 2050 and reduce crop losses caused by problems such as viruses, which deplete crops by 10–15%.

The two-day workshop, held in early July, looked at a breadth of issues, including community attitudes, gene editing success stories, and tools and resources. But discussions kept coming back to regulation.

Outdated regulations

Regulations of gene technologies were largely developed 20 years ago or so, for different technologies than now exist, and as a result are not clear enough for researchers to determine whether different gene editing technologies they are working on may be governed by them or not.

The diversity of regulations is also going to be an issue, for some countries may allow different gene editing technologies, but others may not allow products developed using them to be imported.

That led to the group beginning to develop a statement that captured the feeling of the workshop, which, when complete, it is hoped will be adopted by relevant agencies around the world to develop their own particular positions on gene editing technologies. It would be a huge benefit to have a coherent and common line in an environment of mixed regulations in mixed jurisdictions.

CRISPR cabbage

And as to the initial question of what CRISPR cabbage tastes like – just like any cabbage you might buy at your local supermarket or farmers market, of course – since it is really no different.

 

Want to read more about CRISPR? Check out our interview with Prof. Stefan Jansson or our introduction to CRISPR from Dr Damiano Martignago.

Genetics to boost sugarcane production

Scientists in Brazil are taking steps towards genetically modifying sugar cane so it produces more sucrose naturally, looking to eventually boost the productivity and economic benefits of the tropical grass.

A man stacks sugarcane at the Ver-o-Peso (Check the Weight) market in Belem.

Currently, it is common for producers to raise sucrose levels in sugar cane by applying artificial growth regulators or chemical ripeners. This inhibits flowering, which in turn prolongs harvest and milling periods.

One of these growth regulators, ethephon, is used to manage agricultural, horticultural and forestry crops around the world. It is widely used to manipulate and stimulate the maturation of sugarcane as it contains ethylene, which is released to the plant on spraying.

Ethylene, considered a ripening hormone in plants, contributes to increasing the storage of sucrose in sugar cane.

“Although we knew ethylene helps increase the amount of sugar in the cane, it was not clear how the synthesis and action of this hormone affected the maturation of the plant,” said Marcelo Menossi, professor at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) and coordinator of the project, which is supported by the Brazilian research foundation FAPESP.

To study how ethylene acts on sugarcane, the researchers sprayed ethephon and an ethylene inhibitor, aminoethoxyvinylglycine (AVG), on sugar cane before it began to mature.
sucrose accumulation.jpg

After spraying both compounds, they quantified sucrose levels in tissue samples from the leaves and stem of the cane. They did this five days after application and again 32 days later, on harvest.

Those plants treated with the ethephon ripener had 60 per cent more sucrose in the upper and middle internodes at the time of harvest, while the plants treated with the AVG inhibitor had a sucrose content that was lower by 42 per cent.

The researchers were then able to identify genes that respond to the action of ethylene during ripening of the sugar cane. They also successfully identified the genes involved in regulating sucrose metabolism, as well as how the hormone acts on sucrose accumulation sites in the plant.

Based on the findings, the team has proposed a molecular model of how ethylene interacts with other hormones.

“Knowing which genes or ripeners make it possible for the plant to increase the accumulation of sucrose will allow us to make genetic improvements in sugarcane and develop varieties that over-express these genes, without the need to apply ethylene, for example,” explained Menossi.

This research could also help with spotting the most productive sugar cane, as some varieties that do not respond well to hormones, he added. “It will be possible to identify those [varieties] that best express these genes and facilitate the ripening action.”

Taken from a newsletter by FAPESP, a SciDev.Net donor, edited by our Latin America and the Caribbean desk

 

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

Rise in groundwater overuse could hit food prices

By Neena Bhandari

[SYDNEY] The increasing use of groundwater for irrigation poses a major threat to global food security and could lead to unaffordable prices of staple foods. From 2000 to 2010, the amount of non-renewable groundwater used for irrigation increased by a quarter, according to an article published in Nature on March 30. During the same period China had doubled its groundwater use.

The article finds that 11 per cent of groundwater extraction for irrigation is linked to agricultural trade.

“In some regions, for example in Central California or North-West India, there is not enough precipitation or surface water available to grow crops like maize or rice and so farmers also use water from the underground to irrigate,” the article says.

“When a country imports US maize grown with this non-renewable water, it virtually imports non-renewable groundwater.”

Carole Dalin,  Institute for Sustainable Resources at University College, London

The article focused on cases where underground reservoirs or aquifers, are overused. “When a country imports US maize grown with this non-renewable water, it virtually imports non-renewable groundwater,” Carole Dalin, lead author and senior research fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Resources at University College, London, tells SciDev.Net.

Crops such as rice, wheat, cotton, maize, sugar crops and soybeans are most reliant on this unsustainable water use, according to the article. It lists countries in the Middle East and North Africa as well as China, India, Mexico, Pakistan and the US as most at risk.

“Pakistan and India have been locally most affected due to groundwater depletion and exporting agricultural products grown with non-sustainable groundwater. Iran is both exporting and importing and The Philippines is importing from Pakistan, which is non-sustainable. China is importing a lot from India. Japan and Indonesia are importing, mainly from the US,” says Yoshihide Wada, co-author of the report and deputy director of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis’s Water Programme, Laxenburg, Austria.

Agriculture is the leading user of groundwater, accounting for more than 80 to 90 per cent of withdrawals in irrigation-intense countries like India, Pakistan and Iran, according to the report.

The researchers say efforts to improve water use efficiency and develop monitoring and regulation need to be prioritised. Governments must invest in better irrigation infrastructure such as sprinkler irrigation and introduce new cultivar or crop rotation to help producers minimise water use.

Wada suggests creating awareness by putting water labels, along the lines of food labels, “showing how much water is used domestically and internationally in produce and whether these water amounts are from sustainable or non-sustainable sources”.

Andrew Western, professor of hydrology and water resources at the University of Melbourne’s School of Engineering, suggests enforceable water entitlement systems and caps on extraction. “In recent decades, water reform in Australia has led to water having a clear economic value made explicit by a water market. This has enabled shifts in water use to cope with short-term climate fluctuations and has also driven a trend of increasing water productivity,” he says.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

 

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

Creole maize reveals adaptation secrets

By Lucina Melesio

[MEXICO CITY] An international team of scientists identified a hundred genes that influence adaptation to the latitude, altitude, growing season and flowering time of nearly 4,500 native maize varieties in Mexico and in almost all Latin American and Caribbean countries.

Creole — or native — varieties of maize are derived from improvements made over thousands of years by local farmers, and contain genes that help them adapt to different environments.

“We are now using this analysis to find other genes that are of vital importance to breeders, such as those resistant to extreme heat, frost or drought — environmental conditions associated with climate change and that could affect maize production.”

Sarah Hearne, CIMMYT

“Latin American breeders will be able to use these results to identify native varieties that could contribute to improved adaptation”, Edward Buckler, a Cornell University researcher and co-author of the study published in Nature Genetics (February 6), told SciDev.Net.

The information on the genetic markers described in the study will be available online, said Sarah Hearne, a researcher at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) and co-author of the study. “Meanwhile, any breeder can contact us to request information”, she said.

“We are now using this analysis to find other genes that are of vital importance to breeders, such as those resistant to extreme heat, frost or drought — environmental conditions associated with climate change and that could affect maize production”, Hearne said.

Maize ears from CIMMYT’s collection, showing a wide variety of colors and shapes. CIMMYT’s germplasm bank contains about 28,000 unique samples of cultivated maize and its wild relatives, teosinte and Tripsacum. These include about 26,000 samples of farmer landraces—traditional, locally-adapted varieties that are rich in diversity. The bank both conserves this diversity and makes it available as a resource for breeding.
Photo credit: Xochiquetzal Fonseca/CIMMYT.

Studying native maize varieties is extremely difficult because of their genetic variation. Although domesticated, they are wilder than commercial varieties.

For this study, the researchers cultivated hybrid creole varieties in various environments in Latin America and identified regions of the genome that control growth rates. They looked into where the varieties came from and what genetic features contributed to their growth in that environment.

 In comments to SciDev.Net, James Holland, a researcher at North Carolina State University, Jeffrey Ross-Ibarra, a researcher at the University of California Davis, and Rodomiro Ortiz, a researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences — who did not participate in the study — commended the magnitude of the study and the original method developed by the researchers to access the rich set of genetic information about native maize varieties.

Hearne added that the research team has initiated a “pre-breeding” programme with a small group of breeders in Mexico. As part of that programme, CIMMYT delivers to breeders materials from its germplasm bank of Creole maize; it also provides molecular information the breeders can use to generate new varieties.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Latin America and Carribean edition.

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

Sustainable, resilient, and nutritious food production with N8 AgriFood

This week we spoke with Dr Sally Howlett, a Knowledge Exchange Fellow with the N8 AgriFood Programme. (More on Sally at the end).

Sally, what is the N8 AgriFood Programme? When and why was it established?

The N8 Research Partnership is a collaboration of the eight most research-intensive universities in the North of England, namely Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield, and York. It is a not-for-profit organization with the aim of bringing together research, industry and society in joint initiatives. These partners have a strong track record of working together on large-scale, collaborative research projects, one of which is the N8 AgriFood Programme. This £16M multi-disciplinary initiative is funded by the N8 partners and HEFCE (The Higher Education Funding Council for England), and was launched in 2015 to address three key global challenges in Food Security: sustainable food production, resilient food supply chains, and improved nutrition and consumer behavior.

How does plant science research fit into the N8 AgriFood Programme?

There is a strong motivation to ‘think interdisciplinary’ when it comes to developing projects for the N8 AgriFood Programme; therefore, whilst the most obvious home for plant science may be within the theme of sustainable food production, e.g. crop improvement, we see no boundaries when it comes to integrating fundamental research in plant science with applications in all three of our research themes. The testing of research ideas in the ‘real world’ is supported by the five University farms within the N8, which include arable and livestock holdings.

We are launching a Crop Innovation Pipeline to assist with the translation of research into practical applications, with the first event taking place in Newcastle on 2nd-3rd May 2017. It is an opportunity for scientists from academia and industry and representatives from the farming community to discuss their ideas for the implementation of plant biology research into on-farm crop improvement strategies.

How is the work split between the different institutions? How is such a large-scale initiative managed?

Whilst there are many areas of shared expertise between the eight partner institutions, each also has its own areas of specialism within the agri-food arena. The strength of the N8 AgriFood Programme is in working collaboratively to identify complementary strengths and grow those areas in a synergistic way. In this way, we are collectively able to tackle research projects that would not be possible for a single university alone. Pump-priming funds are available at a local and strategic level to support this kick-starting of new multi-institution projects. The Programme itself is led out of the University of York, and each University has its own N8 AgriFood Chair in complementary areas across the Programme. Having both inward- and outward-facing roles, they work with the Knowledge Exchange Fellows and the Programme Lead for each theme to ensure activities at their own institute are connected with what is going on in the wider N8.

What does your work as a Knowledge Exchange Fellow entail?

As a Knowledge Exchange Fellow within the N8 AgriFood Programme, my initial contact with people usually begins with the question ‘What on earth does a Knowledge Exchange Fellow do?’ – and it can be quite difficult to answer! Although some form of knowledge transfer activity has been a defined output of research projects for some time now, knowledge exchange as an ongoing two-way dialogue between researchers and external stakeholders to enable a co-creation process has been less common until recently. Hence dedicated Knowledge Exchange Fellows with academic training are a relatively ‘new’, but growing, phenomenon.

My role is best described as acting as a bridge between the research community and non-academics with a vested interest in developing or using the findings of the research process. It is key to have a good understanding of the perspectives of all parties involved and be able to translate this into the appropriate language for a particular sector. Each of the N8 institutes has appointed Knowledge Exchange Fellow(s), and we work as a cohort to keep abreast of the latest developments in our fields in order to support the development of relationships and innovative projects. In such a huge undertaking, the phrase ‘there is strength in numbers’ is certainly apposite!

 

How does N8 AgriFood interact with companies?

N8 Agrifood engages with UK-based companies in many ways, including individual face-to-face meetings, attending and hosting networking events, participating in national exhibitions, and holding business-facing conferences. We also run a series of Industry Innovation Forums on various topics throughout the year. These provide a unique opportunity to discuss key challenges, identify problems and deliver new insights into innovation for agri-food, matching practical and technical industry challenges with the best research capabilities of the N8 universities.

 

How does N8 Agrifood interact with farmers?

As the engine of the agri-food industry, the views and collective experience of the farming community are vitally important in shaping the direction and content of the projects we develop. Co-hosting events with programs such as the ADAS Yield Enhancement Network (YEN), which involves over 100 farms, is one way that we connect with the sector. We are also working with agricultural societies to promote what we are doing and engage directly with their networks of farming members, e.g. the Yorkshire Agricultural Society’s Farmer Scientist Network. Last year we gave a series of seminars at the Great Yorkshire Show and are keen to encourage further collaboration with practicing farmers and growers across the UK.

 

Does N8 AgriFood collaborate with other research institutes around the world?

The N8 AgriFood Programme has strong international connections and actively welcomes working with international research institutes. Given the interconnectedness of our global food system, we feel that it is vital to link with overseas partners and that real impact can be had by bringing together top researchers from other countries to work together on problems. The value of N8 AgriFood as a one-stop shop is that we represent a large breadth and depth of expertise under a single umbrella, which greatly facilitates collaborating and finding suitable collaboration partners. Our pump-priming funds are a way for researchers to initiate new international partnerships, and we are also working to build links with global research organizations who have shared interests. For example, we recently visited Brazil and China to explore specific opportunities for collaboration and leveraging of research expertise and facilities, and are currently organizing a workshop in Argentina in March.

 

Where can readers get more information?

If you’d like to find out more, please visit our website: http://n8agrifood.ac.uk/, or consider attending one of our upcoming events:

 

All images are credited to the N8 Agrifood Programme.


Dr Sally Howlett is a Knowledge Exchange Fellow with the N8 AgriFood Programme. Her research background is in sustainable crop production and plant pest management.  After working on the control of invertebrate crop pests in New Zealand for several years, she returned to on-farm research in the UK and extended her focus to include the crops themselves taking a whole-systems view and comparing performance under conventional, organic and agroforestry management approaches. Sally’s role within N8 AgriFood provides a great opportunity to use her experience of agriculture and working with different actors across the sector to engage with external stakeholders, co-producing ideas and multi-disciplinary projects with applications throughout the agrifood chain.

Chickpea innovation: Revisiting the origins of crops to solve the challenges of modern agriculture

Doug Cook

Professor Doug Cook

This post was written by Professor Doug Cook (University of California, Davis), the Director of the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate Resilient Chickpea. His current research spans both model and crop legume systems from a cellular to an ecosystem scale. 

 

The origins of modern human society derive, in large part, from the transition to an agrarian lifestyle that occurred in parallel at multiple locations around the world, including ~10,000 years ago in Mesopotamia*. Early agriculturalists wrought a revolution that would define human trajectory to the current day, domesticating wild plant and animal species into crops and livestock. The wild progenitors of chickpea, for example, were among a handful of Mesopotamian neo-crops, brought from hilly slopes into more fertile and cultivable plains and river valleys. In doing so, these farmers selected a small number of useful traits largely based on natural mutations that made wild forms amenable to agriculture, such as the consistency of flowering, upright growth, and seeds that remained attached to plants rather than dispersing.

Chickpea innovation

Doug Cook collecting chickpeas

Collecting wild chickpea plants, soil, and seed in southeastern Turkey. Image credit: Chickpea Innovation lab.

An unintended consequence of crop domestication was the loss of the vast majority of genetic diversity found in the wild populations. The Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Climate Resilient Chickpea at the University of California, Davis (Chickpea Innovation Lab) documented a ~95% loss of genetic variation from wild species to modern elite varieties. This reduction in genetic variation constrains our ability to adapt the chickpea crop to the range of challenges facing modern agriculture.

The Chickpea Innovation Lab is re-awakening the untapped potential of wild chickpea and directing that potential to solve global problems in agriculture, especially in the developing world.  Combining longstanding practices in ecology with the remarkable power of genomics and sophisticated computational methods, we have spanned the gap from the wild systems to cultivated crops. Beginning with the analysis of ~2,000 wild genomes, the simple technology of genetic crosses applied at massive scale has delivered a large and representative suite of wild variation into agricultural germplasm. These traits are now being actively used for phenotyping and breeding in the U.S., India, Ethiopia and Turkey, and our team is currently prospecting for tolerance to drought, heat and cold; increased pest and disease resistance; improved seed nutritional content; nitrogen fixation; plant architecture; and yield.

Characterizing wild germplasm

Sultan Mohammed Yimer

Visiting Ethiopian student, Sultan Mohammed Yimer investigating disease resistance in wild chickpea. Image credit: Chickpea Innovation lab.

Along the way, the Chickpea Innovation Lab has deposited wild germplasm into the multi-lateral system, providing open access to a treasure trove of genetic variation. The Chickpea Innovation Lab derives support from numerous sponsors whose funds enable the collection, characterization, and utilization of this vital germplasm resource.

International research

A unique strength of the lab is that our diverse sponsorship permits activities ranging from fundamental scientific investigation to applied agricultural research and product development.

An additional objective of the Lab is to train and educate students in the developing world. Towards that end, 18 international and nine domestic students, postdoctoral scientists and visiting faculty have received training in disciplines ranging from computational biology, plant pathology and entomology, to agricultural microbiology, and molecular genetics and breeding.

Chickpea breeding

Harvesting progeny derived by crossing wild and cultivated chickpea plants in Davis, California. Image credit: Chickpea Innovation lab.

* Mesopotamia, literally “between the rivers”, is the region of modern day southeastern Turkey, bounded by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

 

RNA clay offers green alternative to plant pesticides

By Neena Bhandari

A nano-sized bio-degradable clay-comprising double stranded ribonucleic acid (dsRNA) could offer a cost-effective, clean and green alternative to chemical-based plant pesticides.

Australian researchers from the University of Queensland have successfully used a gene-silencing spray, named BioClay, a combination of biomolecules and clay, to protect tobacco plants from a virus for 20 days with a single application. Their study has been published in Nature Plants.

“When BioClay is sprayed onto a plant, the virus-specific dsRNA is slowly released from the clay nanosheets into the plant. This activates a pathway in the plant that is a natural defence mechanism. The dsRNA is chopped up into small bits of RNA by enzymes of this pathway. These small bits attack the virus when it infects the plant without altering the plant genome,” explains lead researcher, Neena Mitter.

“Even with current pesticides, we lose up to 40 per cent of our crop productivity because of pests and pathogens. We are hoping that having BioClay in the mix as an environmentally friendly, sustainable crop protection measure will reduce crop losses,” Mitter adds.

“The clay-based delivery technology could represent a positive inflection point in the progress towards commercialisation of topical RNAi. This is a non-GM, environmentally benign and very specific technology.”

 John Killmer, APSE

While chemical-based pesticides kill the targeted insect, they can also affect a range of other insects that are beneficial. Mitter says, “BioClay is specific and it only kills the pathogen being targeted. Currently farmers use insecticides to kill the vector that comes with the viruses, but with BioClay we can target the virus itself.”

BioClay field trials may begin in Australia by year-end. “The first test will be on a virus that infects vegetable crops — capsicum, tomato, chilli,” Mitter tells SciDev.Net.

Farmers can use the existing equipment to deliver BioClay and the researchers are hopeful that it will be a commercially viable product for farmers everywhere. The clay component is cheap to make, but not the RNA.

Several companies like APSE, a US based startup, are working on the mass production of RNAs. APSE is developing RNA manufacturing technology for RNA interference (RNAi) or gene silencing applications.

“Our technology for RNA production should be ready in 2-3 years. We are targeting US$2 per gram,” APSE’s John Killmer tells SciDev.Net.

Killmer says, “The clay-based delivery technology could represent a positive inflection point in the progress towards commercialisation of topical RNAi. This is a non-GM, environmentally benign and very specific technology.”

RNAi technology is being used by many in the agriculture industry including the biotech firm Monsanto. The company’s BioDirect technology is focused on applications of RNAi directly onto the leaves of a plant.

Monsanto’s spokesperson John Combest tells SciDev.Net, “As insects develop resistance to certain classes of pesticides, giving farmers another option to control these pests is critical. The idea is not to replace any given system of farming, whether modern GM systems or others — it’s to provide farmers with products that can complement or replace agricultural chemical products.”

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

 

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