Interdisciplinary Team Working to Feed, Clothe, and Shelter 9 Billion People By 2050

Small drone above the fieldBy Tara Hale

Through its land grant mission, Texas A&M University, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and Texas A&M AgriLife Research are charged with the genetic improvement of plants for the benefit of humanity, and the development of knowledge-based production and management systems. Members of the Food, Feed, Fiber, Bioenergy for 2050 Faculty Integrative Team, formed as a result of the 2014 Grand Challenges Mini-Symposia, are rising to the challenge of implementing methods to meet the task of feeding, clothing and sheltering a projected nine billion people by 2050.

Dr. Wayne Smith, project director and professor of soil and crop sciences, said that the goal of this initiative is to bring together faculty who have an interest in plant improvement and, more specifically, crop improvement that we use for food, feed, greenspace, and shelter. “Going forward, one would hope that teams will evolve from this initiative,” Dr. Smith said. “Those teams will be comprised of people and expertise that otherwise might not have had the opportunity to come together and work towards a common goal.”

“There are positive consequences from this enterprise no matter how you want to spin it,” Dr. Smith said. “There’s just a plethora of good things we expect to happen as a result of this initiative.” The coordinating committee for this effort includes Drs. Patricia Klein (Horticultural Sciences), Seth Murray (Soil and Crop Sciences), William Rooney (Soil and Crop Sciences), Gregory Sword (Entomology), Jackie Rudd (Soil and Crop Sciences/Texas A&M AgriLife Research), Keerti Rathore (Soil and Crop Sciences), and Alex Thomasson (Biological and Agricultural Engineering).

The team is composed of four basic science areas – high throughput phenotyping; gametic cycling; genome wide breeding; and genome editing.

Using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles to Measure Crops

Alex ThomassonDr. Thomasson, professor from the biological and agricultural engineering department, is the leader of the high throughput phenotyping (HTTP) initiative.  The challenge of HTTP is developing technologies that will allow plant breeding teams to utilize genomics with quantitative traits such as yield, drought resistance, heat resistance, adaption to soil spatial variability, nutritional components, etc. The goal of HTTP is to bring mechanical, optical, electronic, and computer technologies together on ground or aerial platforms to make such measurements on as many as 100,000 plants or more in a single day.

“Most research in using Unmanned Aerial Vehicles in agriculture in the near future will focus on remote sensing of crops, which has historically been done with manned aircraft or satellites,” Dr. Thomasson said. “UAVs offer more highly detailed images, lower cost per flight, and more flexibility in timing.  Going forward, much of the focus is on using UAVs for HTTP, in which they will carry sensors to rapidly measure numerous physical plant traits in the field.  My research in this area will move towards integration of robotic manipulators with UAVs, so they can ultimately do some pretty sophisticated tasks in the field, like lifting and inspecting plant leaves for insects and disease.”

Using Gametes to Speed Up Breeding

Dr. Seth Murray, associate professor from the soil and crop sciences department, is leading the efforts of the gametic cycling aspect of the project. Traditional breeding for genetic improvement of plants and animals has dramatically increased agricultural productivity but is slow compared to engineering cycles, being dependent on the biological duration of life cycle (plants going from seed to seed, and animals reaching sexual maturity). It is possible to develop fertile offspring from gametes (sperm and egg) produced from cells grown in culture, eliminating the step of sexual maturation. Combined with genomics technology, selection can then be done at the cell or gamete level, dramatically increasing the speed of breeding progress. Gametic cycling is more theoretical than the other three tasks; however, it has been demonstrated in mice.

Using Genome Wide Selection to Balance Phenotypic Data

Dr. Patricia Klein, associate professor  from the department of  horticultural sciences, is the leader of the genome wide breeding initiative. Genomic selection is based on simultaneously estimating multiple marker effects throughout the entire genome in order to establish their breeding values for quantitative traits. Genome wide selection considers allelic replications rather than strain or phenotype replication, potentially a more effective way to cope with unbalanced phenotypic data, which is common in applied breeding programs.

“Genome wide selection allows the plant breeder to have at his/her disposal the genotype or the molecular basis of the phenotype of the plant, instead of just knowing what the plant looks like,” Dr. Smith said.

Using Genome Editing to Produce non-GMO Crops

Dr. Keerti Rathore, professor from the soil and crop sciences department, is the leader of the genome editing initiative. “Genome editing is a relatively new technology that holds the potential to manipulate genes within a plant species so that we are no longer dealing with GMOs,” Dr. Smith said.

With DNA alterations involving just one or two nucleotide changes or the introduction of a gene from the same species, this technology can enable genome modifications in plants that are indistinguishable from those introduced via conventional breeding and induced mutagenesis. Such crop plants modified using these technologies could be classified as cisgenic or non-GM which could facilitate acceptance in countries that now exclude GMO crops.

“The specialization in each discipline is impressive and rather daunting, but when we come together on an important effort like this, the sum of our collaborations appears to be outgrowing the simple combination of the disparate parts,” Dr. Thomasson said. “I expect Texas A&M AgriLife Research to soon be a world leader in HTPP and UAVs in agriculture, and within a few years I believe we will have dramatically affected the way food and fiber are produced, and we will be on track to meet the needs of feeding our world.”

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