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NSF Launches $25 Million Digital Biology Center

by | Sep 13, 2021

A medium closeup photo of Joyce Van Eck in a greenhouse, surrounded by groundcherry plants. She is smiling, wearing a red shirt, black sweater, and a purple and white necklace. The plants are laden with fruit.

Joyce Van Eck tends to some groundcherry plants in a BTI greenhouse. Image credit: BTI.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded $25 million over five years to four participating institutions to create the Center for Research on Programmable Plant Systems (CROPPS), which will develop new methods for observing, recording and modulating plant responses to their environment. The new center aims to integrate plant sciences, engineering and computer science to improve crops and the sustainability of agricultural management practices.

Cornell University is the lead institution for CROPPS, and is joined by the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI), University of Arizona, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

“One goal of CROPPS is to explore approaches to facilitate the development of crops that use resources more efficiently, and to better target water and nutrient delivery to improve agricultural sustainability,” says Joyce Van Eck, BTI faculty member and lead researcher for the Institute’s involvement in the center.

The new digital biology center will have researchers that span the fields of plant biology, biotechnology, microbiology, genetics, computing, nanotechnology, automation and integrated learning. This wide variety of experts will work to engineer plant systems that sense changes in the environment, report their physiological responses into the digital realm, and respond to digital signals. The researchers call this integration of biotechnology, hardware and software the “Internet of Living Things.”

The hope is that discoveries made by CROPPS could eventually be translated into improved crop varieties and more sustainable crop management strategies. For example, a plant could detect low levels of nitrogen in the soil and release fluorescent signals via the leaves to be spotted by drones, which would then wirelessly transmit information through distributed communication networks to drive breakthroughs in understanding and on-farm intervention – e.g., the application of more fertilizer.

“In practice, not every plant in a field would be engineered to release a signal,” says Van Eck, a plant geneticist and bioengineering expert. “A handful of plants would be planted to act as biosensors in different parts of a field. That way, a farmer could learn to target resources where and when they are needed, and avoid waste. This would lead to more efficient and sustainable agricultural practices.”

Van Eck, who is also an adjunct assistant professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell, will be involved in multiple parts of the project, including working with the Cornell engineering department to automate some of the genetic processes.

“There are routine, repetitive methods that could be done through automation – for example, replenishing growth media for plant tissue cultures – which would free up time for scientists to do more high-value tasks like experiment design,” Van Eck said.

She also will be collaborating with researchers at partnering institutions to develop new methods for engineering programmable plants, and helping to create them.

“We will work to increase the efficiency and throughput for engineering plant systems,” Van Eck explains. “And then use those tools to engineer plants with bio- and nano-sensors capable of both transmitting and receiving information, beginning with tomato, maize and cotton.”

Text that says: “One goal of CROPPS is to explore approaches to facilitate the development of crops that use resources more efficiently.” – Joyce Van EckOnce the plants are in the field for testing, Van Eck will help study how they respond to environmental stresses. “We will attempt to decipher the interplay between environmental factors and plant development, to help plant breeders optimize plant performance,” she explains.

BTI faculty member Georg Jander will be involved in CROPPS in two ways. He will contribute to an undergraduate internship program that will train students to conduct research at the interface of plant biology and engineering, and he will help develop new methods for robotic detection of insect infestations in agricultural fields.

“By automating the detection of insect pests, we will be able to deploy chemical treatments in a more targeted manner and thereby reduce the negative effects of insecticides in the environment,” Jander says.

CROPPS will be led by Susan McCouch, the Barbara McClintock Professor of Plant Breeding and Genetics at Cornell and BTI adjunct faculty member, and co-director Abe Stroock, Gordon L. Dibble Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell.

You can read more about the new center here in The Cornell Chronicle.

 

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