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Seeding North Carolina’s future

CALS and its partners strive to make North Carolina the world’s leader in plant sciences innovation.

NC State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has a grand vision for addressing the greatest agricultural challenges facing the state and the world. Called the Plant Sciences Initiative, the objective is to make North Carolina the global hub for plant-related innovation, in much the same way that Silicon Valley is the world’s high-tech hot spot.

The initiative is about increasing agricultural yields and profitability in ways that create new agricultural and agricultural biosciences jobs, markets and businesses. It’s about filling the need to double the food supply for a fast-growing population, using less land and less water and protecting the environment upon which life depends.

It’s about collaboration that builds on scientific strengths of academia, industry and government.

It’s about bringing together the leading scientists in plant-related disciplines – plant and microbial biology, plant pathology, biochemistry, and horticultural and crop sciences – with engineers, mathematicians, physicists and economists in ways that generate the type of big ideas that not only work but make economic sense.

It’s about training the agricultural science workforce and leaders of tomorrow by giving students the chance to interact with industry on such interdisciplinary projects.

And as Dean Richard Linton says, “It’s about increasing our industry capital and taking advantage of an equation that no one else has in the country: Different soils, different climates, diversification of farming operations, Research Triangle Park and a very strong land-grant university. … No one else has these assets in their backyard that we’re trying to take advantage of.”

The Plant Sciences Initiative evolved from discussions that CALS administration had a few years ago with thousands of stakeholders in farming, agribusiness, science and technology as the college developed its strategic plan. Stakeholders called for more research that enhances agricultural productivity and profitability and that spins off agricultural biotechnology companies.

Several factors led to the focus on plant sciences: With two-thirds of the college’s faculty engaged in plant sciences, CALS has a strong reputation in the area. In addition, the college, along with N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services, has 18 research stations spread across the state, where field trials can be conducted in highly diverse soils and climates.

The college’s other plant-related assets include the Center for Environmental Farming Systems partnership, near Goldsboro, and the Plants for Human Health Institute at the N.C. Research Campus in Kannapolis.

Steve Lommel
The Plant Sciences Initiative aims for North Carolina to be the global hub for plant-related innovation. Dr. Steve Lommel, CALS director of the N.C. Agricultural Research Service, sits before an artist’s concept of a proposed Plant Sciences Research Complex on Centennial Campus.

Equally significant, says CALS Associate Dean and Director of Research Steve Lommel, the college is located near the world research-and-development headquarters for three multinational ag biotech seed companies, as well as many smaller plant biotech firms. With these companies, plus Duke University, UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. A&T State University nearby, the area is home to top plant science experts – and would be attractive to even more.

But what the college lacks, Lommel says, is a modern facility where public and private entities can work together, under one roof, on interdisciplinary efforts to enhance food security, water resource management, bioenergy, food nutrition and other major challenges. In January, the college, along with NCDA&CS, delivered to the state legislature an economic feasibility report that calls for the building of a 190,000-square-foot Plant Sciences Research Complex on Centennial Campus.

NC State has raised about half of the $18 million needed to plan the $160 million complex, with most of the support coming from commodity groups that have embraced the initiative.

Experts expect the economic gains from an investment in such a complex, and the initiative it is part of, to be substantial. Battelle Memorial Institute, which put together the feasibility study that went to the legislature, estimates that pursuing the initiative’s vision could increase plant technology sector jobs by 2,365 jobs and boost associated economic output by $366 million by 2024.

Nowhere else, Battelle reports, has its Technology Partnership Practice seen such a “promising convergence of assets poised to take advantage of large-scale expanding markets as North Carolina has in plant science and associated ag bioscience.”

Ignazio Carbone, Terri Long and Amy Grunden
“The Plant Sciences Initiative’s goal is to stimulate more interdisciplinary conversations that move the work forward toward application,” says Dr. Ignazio Carbone (left), whose interdisciplinary perspective is shared by Dr. Terri Long and Dr. Amy Grunden.

College leaders say the Plant Sciences Initiative’s goal is to increase agricultural yield by emphasizing four interdisciplinary areas: crop protection from biotic stresses, such as weeds, insects and pathogens; plant adaptation to abiotic stress and marginal conditions; precision agriculture and field-data systems; and agri-symbiotics, or beneficial biological interactions between plants and microbes and other organisms.

According to Battelle, each of these focus areas is aligned with the scientific goals that the American Society of Plant Biologists set for the next decade. Not only that, they are relevant to the ag bioscience industry and would enhance the state’s annual $78 billion agricultural production and value chain. All fit with core CALS faculty expertise, except for agri-symbiotics, but that fast-emerging area is seen as vital to the future of plant sciences.

Moving science forward in these four areas requires collaboration, says Lommel, a plant scientist by training who serves as director of the North Carolina Agricultural Research Service (NCARS). In an increasingly competitive funding environment, he says, granting agencies, such as the National Science Foundation, “want biologists, engineers, mathematicians, modelers and economists to be working together.”

A proposed effort related to programmable plants is one example of a CALS research project that would depend on such collaborations. In leading that effort, Dr. Margaret Daub sees biologists, mathematicians and engineers using their combined expertise for modeling and plant systems biology to understand the molecular-level networks that underlie yield variability.

“We would look at massive changes in plants as they are affected by stress responses,” says Daub, head of the Plant and Microbial Biology Department. “What genes are turned on? What metabolites are being produced? How do plants adapt to these various environmental conditions – including soil nutrient status, as well as drought or temperature – as well as the time of day and the developmental stage of the plant?”

NCARS Assistant Research Director Dr. Becky Boston explains that rather than testing every network component independently against every imaginable variable in the plant and its environment – an impossible task – the scientists would use computer modeling to identify some of the most promising, then test them in the field.

Research team members at the Cunningham Research Station
Gathered near Kinston are research team members (at front) Dr. Colleen Doherty, Mariano Lowenstern and Yifan Wang; (standing) Dr. Mohamed Youseff, Bobby Vick, Jigar Desai, Dr. Gary Payne, Dr. Gail Wilkerson, Dr. Jeffrey White, Robert Walters, Andrew Thapa and Greg Buol. In right background is a 50-foot telescoping vertical mast with a spectral imaging camera to collect light color distribution data that reveal seasonal plant growth information.

“This type of research that uses both experimental and computational tools is now the norm, whether you are looking at plant breeding or more basic research,” says Boston, also a plant scientist.

Indeed, CALS scientists have for years been moving away, Lommel says, from a “siloed, cloistered approach” to science to a “whole new way of thinking.” So although the Plant Sciences Initiative is in its early stages and questions about funding remain, NC State plant scientists have already embraced its key principle: that creating solutions to the biggest agricultural challenges and opportunities will require collaborations among researchers from multiple disciplines; among growers, scientists and Extension experts; and among academia, government and industry.

Here, from the perspectives of their own research, a few of these forwarding-thinking plant scientists describe the power that can come from such collaboration.

Fueling transportation

Dr. Amy Grunden
Dr. Amy Grunden is working on a project using microorganisms able to survive in some of the most extreme environments on Earth to turn plants and algae into better oil producers.

“In looking at what’s the optimal way to grow algae on a large scale, going all the way from algal culture to finished fuel, and doing that efficiently, just one discipline can’t do it all. We need chemical engineers, civil engineers, economists, plant biologists and microbiologists all working together.” – Dr. Amy Grunden

Problem: With a limited supply of petroleum and a growing need for energy, the world needs sustainable alternatives for transportation fuels.

Solution: Biofuels start with plants and therefore offer new and expanding markets for farmers. Not only that, they also nearly eliminate greenhouse gas emissions. But making efficient biofuels that are economical is challenging. At NC State, Drs. Heike Winter Sederoff and Amy Grunden, both of the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology, are using microorganisms able to survive in some of the most extreme environments on Earth to turn plants and algae into better oil producers.

For example, they recently came up with a patent-pending way to put together enzymes from a number of different microorganisms to create a unique five-step carbon fixation cycle to function in conjunction with the Calvin-Benson cycle of camelina, an oil-seed crop, to increase its productivity. And they are discussing with private industry the possibility of licensing their innovation.

Grunden says, “This makes it so the plant can more efficiently take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and convert it to molecules that go on to be oil and plant starch, so you get a bigger plant making more oil.”

Growing yields

Gary Payne
Dr. Gary Payne is co-leading an initiative known as AMPLIFY to create the types of scientific breakthroughs that dramatically increase crop yield with the most efficient use of natural resources.

“I am extremely excited about the Plant Sciences Initiative. … I think it will create a great deal of vitality within the research community, and it certainly has the growers and the commodity groups fired up. I have seen some of them almost give testimonials supporting this initiative.” – Dr. Gary Payne

Problem: Facing an array of crop-production challenges – from diseases and insects to poor soils to drought and flooding – farmers struggle now to feed the world’s people. And without the right solutions, that struggle could grow exponentially as the population rises to 9 billion by 2050.

Solution: Farmers need ways to grow more crops on less land – in other words, they need to keep increasing their yields. Precision agriculture, or site-specific farming, focuses on using advanced technology such as sensor technology, wireless data transmission, satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles and more to observe, measure and respond to variability in crops in ways that increase yields.

At NC State, Dr. Gary Payne, of the Department of Plant Pathology, and Boston have been leading an initiative known as AMPLIFY to create the types of scientific breakthroughs that dramatically increase crop yield with the most efficient use of natural resources. AMPLIFY – or Agrosphere Modeling for Producing Large Increases in Food Yield – is a research partnership that brings together interdisciplinary teams of experts to develop, test and disseminate innovative, cost-effective and precise solutions.

Through AMPLIFY, NC State engineers, for example, are working with crop and plant scientists on applying the latest imaging and sensor technologies to identify yield potential and to develop smart irrigation systems that ensure crops have just the right amount of water – not too little, and not too much.

Tests on these approaches are taking place at AMPLIFY’s technology-rich site at the Cunningham Research Station near Kinston and, in the future, could be carried out at other research stations reflecting the range of soil types and climates found on the East Coast and beyond. Industry is already involved, and Payne is working to establish more industry-university partnerships.

“I think the field is ripe for more collaborative work with industry,” he says, “and the more we do and the more successes we have, the more collaborations will come.”

Pumping iron

Dr. Terri Long
Dr. Terri Long is working with faculty members from the College of Engineering to come up with a novel computing and modeling approach with enough power to identify previously uncharacterized regulatory components involved in iron homeostasis.

“What working with engineers enables me to do is to apply mathematical and engineering approaches to see regulatory relationships that I couldn’t identify just by visualizing things by eye. Basically, I have a different perspective than I did before – a more global perspective.” – Dr. Terri Long

Problem: About 30 percent of the world’s arable soil is calcereous – meaning the pH is so high that it makes iron unavailable to plants. And when crops don’t have iron, they grow poorly. Not only that, they make fruits, vegetables and grains that are poor sources of iron needed for human and animal nutrition.

Solution: Solving the problem, says Assistant Professor of Plant Biology Dr. Terri Long, requires knowing more about how plant regulatory network components, such as genes, hormones and proteins, respond to low iron conditions.

Long is working with faculty members from the departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering to come up with a novel computing and modeling approach with enough power to identify previously uncharacterized regulatory components involved in iron homeostasis in the model plant Arabidopsis. So far, they’ve been successful in identifying several novel regulators of important iron homeostasis genes that they are now following up with. Next up: Seeing if those gene regulators work the same way in soybeans.

“It’s a long stretch off, but if we can identify the relevant genes, we can hopefully modify them through breeding or engineering to produce plants that have either increased tolerance to low nutrient soils or increased nutrient content,” she says.

A matter of time

Colleen Doherty
Dr. Colleen Doherty studies how plants respond at the molecular level to different stressors, including temperature changes, over the course of a day.

“Science is moving so much faster now, you need to work together – not just the plant scientists, but the bioinformaticians, statisticians, economists – to have a meaningful impact. This means students have to be broadly trained, as well. They don’t have to be experts in multiple disciplines, but they have to be exposed, because everybody speaks a different language, and they’ve got to be able to communicate.” – Dr. Colleen Doherty

Problem: With the average temperatures at night rising faster than they are in the day, rice yields have declined – and, with climate change, the same may be happening to other crops.

At NC State, Dr. Colleen Doherty of the Department of Molecular and Structural Biochemistry, studies how plants respond at the molecular level to different stressors, including temperature changes, over the course of a day – in other words, does the plant respond differently at, say, midnight than it does at 2 p.m.? Does the temperature change interfere with the plant’s 24-hour cycles known as circadian rhythm? Knowing that would be key to develop solutions – ways of manipulating plants through biotechnology or breeding to respond in ways that enhance, rather than diminish, yields.

She is conducting her research in collaboration with field researchers, as well as experts in creating images that capture the entire physical, biochemical and physiologic makeup, or phenotype, of an organism. Meanwhile, she’s part of a larger project looking at making hops – the flowers that are used as a flavoring and stability agent in brewing beer – more suited to grow in North Carolina. While others at the Plants for Human Health Institute in Kannapolis plan to examine the metabolites in hops to maximize their health benefits, she is considering whether there is a best time of day to harvest them.

Soil-borne friends and foes

Ignazio Carbone
Dr. Ignazio Carbone directs the Center for Integrated Fungal Research, which focuses on modeling, predicting and managing how changes in the environment – for example, droughts, diseases or pesticides – affect microbes and microbial processes ranging from sub-cellular to ecosystem levels.

“Today, there are more tools that we can use to answer biological and agricultural questions. But we need more cross talk among the disciplines, between the biologists and the mathematicians; the population geneticists and the Extension specialists. The Plant Sciences Initiative’s goal is to encourage that kind of cross talk – to stimulate more interdisciplinary conversations that move the work forward toward application.” – Dr. Ignazio Carbone

Problem: Right beneath our feet is what some scientists call the next frontier: our soils and the beneficial soil microbes on which plants depend – but also the microbes that destroy billions of dollars’ worth of crops each year.

Solution: The world of soil microorganisms – bacteria, fungi and other tiny beings – is largely unexplored, and NC State’s Center for Integrated Fungal Research ( is hard at work figuring out how to achieve their potential to help stop crop loss and increase yields.

The center focuses on modeling, predicting and managing how changes in the environment – for example, droughts, diseases or pesticides – affect microbes and microbial processes ranging from sub-cellular to ecosystem levels.

The center is a collaborative effort of scientists representing both CALS and the College of Sciences at NC State. They come from fields as diverse as plant pathology, microbiology, mathematics and modeling. They work to gain a better understanding of what microbes are out there, how they interact with each other and plants, and how those interactions affect their behavior and genetics. At the same time, the scientists are developing and applying computational, genomic and experimental tools to make the research faster and deeper.

The scientists also are especially interested in ensuring that what they learn in the lab can be translated into farming practice – and thereby create more food, more jobs and more income. For example, they are interested in finding naturally occurring microbes that might be added to soils to act as pesticides. They want those biological pesticides to be both economically viable and environmentally sustainable.

“That translation is an integral part of this, because at the end of the day, our goal is to address the grand challenges of agriculture,” Carbone says. “We want to leverage new technologies – things like precision agriculture, deep sequencing and modeling complexity within ecosystems – to make huge leaps, not baby steps, that lead us to better agricultural management.”

— D. Shore