The Purdue Plant Sciences Research and Education Pipeline brings together researchers and students from many disciplines to improve crop quality, identify tools for easier and more productive crop management, develop new ways to deal with adverse conditions, and help farmers use best practices to keep farms sustainable and profitable for future generations. (Video by Steve Doyle)

Investing in Smarter Agriculture

The Purdue Plant Sciences Pipeline

By Jennifer Stewart - Published January 5, 2014

Purdue Agriculture means Smarter Agriculture™, and the Purdue Plant Sciences Research and Education Pipeline proves it.

In September 2013, Purdue President Mitch Daniels announced the university would commit more than $20 million to establish the pipeline, which enhances plant research throughout the College of Agriculture.

"Feeding a world population expected to grow to more than 9 billion people by 2050 is a grand challenge," Daniels says. "The plant sciences pipeline positions Purdue to face that challenge head-on by identifying better-yielding crops and high-tech crop-management solutions, while also preparing students to become industry leaders in plant sciences."

Jian-Kang Zhu, distinguished professor of plant biology and member of the National Academy of Sciences, is excited about the possibilities.

Zhu, who studies how crops perform in adverse conditions on genetic and epigenetic levels, says initiatives like this one are vital. "Investing in the plant sciences is critical for the future of our planet," he says. "The university has traditionally been strong in this area, and this investment shows we want to strive to be better."

The pipeline is a four-fold effort to expand research capacity in plant biology, transform plants to improve crops, automate large-scale plant analysis, and commercialize products and graduate leaders—all with the goals to feed the hungry and keep farms sustainable for the future.

Purdue Agriculture researchers have opportunities to collaborate on projects with researchers from other Purdue colleges, such as engineering, technology and science.

At the Crossroads of Change Infographic
Purdue Smarter Agriculture™ is about using the best tools to drive innovation that puts Indiana farmers on the cutting edge. View the full-size infographic.

Expand Research Capacity in Plant Biology

A new Center for Molecular Agriculture is part of the pipeline's research mission. Directed by Bob Pruitt, professor of botany and plant pathology, the center will be home to 10 new faculty members, as well as current Purdue faculty, who will study basic plant biology.

"Our goal is to strengthen research and education in basic plant sciences in an innovative, unique and highly collaborative environment," Pruitt says. "We want to give faculty and students every opportunity to achieve their professional objectives and significantly advance fundamental understanding of the plant sciences."

Center researchers will study the molecular mechanisms of plant growth, development and function. They will look at how the interaction between genomes and environments determines physical plant characteristics, or phenotypes.

The center is located in Lilly Hall. Recruitment and hiring are underway for the first five new faculty positions. The remaining five positions will be advertised in 2015.

Improving Crops

The second aspect of the effort is to redesign plants for crop improvement. Improving crops will require top-notch facilities that equip researchers with the latest technologies they need to identify valuable plant genes.

A new plant genome editing facility will provide this technology.

Genes of potential value identified in crop and non-crop model systems will be modified in the facility using genome-editing technologies, such as CRISPR/Cas and TALENs.

Mitch Tuinstra , professor of plant breeding and genetics and scientific director for the pipeline, says researchers will use these variants to assess the gene function and potential impacts on plant performance.

"When we think of biotechnology, we usually think about genetically modified organisms that contain genes from other species that benefit the crop plant. Some examples include herbicide tolerance and insect resistance characteristics," he says. "New genome editing technologies allow scientists to precisely rewrite or edit existing genes in crop plants.

"The development of a new genome editing facility at Purdue will enable students and faculty to conduct this type of cutting-edge research. This will contribute to the discovery of new genes and new gene functions."

Automated Plant Analysis

Another key investment is the Automated Field Phenotyping facility, slated to open spring 2016 at Purdue's Agronomy Center for Research and Education, or ACRE.

Phenotyping is the study of plant characteristics. The new facility will be a hub for researchers to collect massive plant-characteristic data sets. They will be able to monitor crops in the fields on an individual plant level using state-of-the art sensors and unmanned aerial vehicles. Plants can also be moved from the fields into the facility for further analysis.

Unmanned aerial vehicles and state-of-the-art sensors will help researchers monitor crops.Unmanned aerial vehicles and state-of-the-art sensors will help researchers monitor crops. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

The facility will be connected to Purdue's high-performance computing cluster by fiber optics. Faculty and students will be able to transfer data from ACRE to the cluster for data analysis and then to their labs for study. The results will help them understand the technologies and genotypes that are performing the best and under what conditions.

Karen Plaut , senior associate dean for research and faculty affairs and plant sciences pipeline coordinator, says the new facility will be a high-tech, data-collection point that will allow researchers to learn more about plants than ever before.

"We will not only be able to identify crop problems, but also pick out crops with genetic and phenotypic profiles that indicate they will increase yield under a variety of conditions," Plaut says. "Part of the pipeline mission involves developing new sensors, identifying crop management strategies and testing existing technologies to help producers decide what might work best on their farms."

New Products and Leaders

Additionally, researchers at the phenotyping facility will test existing sensors and UAVs, and develop and commercialize new ones. The aim is to provide producers with the very best tools they need to produce high-yielding crops efficiently.

But high-tech research and product commercialization aren't Purdue's only missions for the plant sciences initiative. Preparing students for careers in plant sciences also is a major goal.

"Our students are the future of agriculture," says Marcos Fernandez, associate dean and director of academic programs. "We want to prepare them to be the researchers and industry leaders of the future and to play a major role in finding the solutions to feed a hungry world."

Students will benefit from research opportunities and laboratory and classroom spaces for hands-on, collaborative work with each other and with faculty. Two student-teaching labs are being renovated to double seating capacity and provide collaborative workspaces.

Plaut says Purdue Agriculture's record of research and education in the plant sciences has created a firm foundation upon which to build. "The Plant Sciences Research and Education Pipeline will move us forward and take us to a new level that will benefit consumers, farmers and researchers—at home and around the globe."

Purdue Agriculture is Smarter Agriculture™, and it's only getting smarter.

Researcher's Path Started on a Small Farm in China

Jian-Kang Zhu
Jian-Kang Zhu researches plants at the genetic level, seeking ways to give crops to better resistance to drought and other stresses. He hopes his discoveries will help farmers around the world. (Photo by Tom Campbell)

Cold weather and drought. Salty soils. Backbreaking labor. Hungry people. Jian-Kang Zhu experienced all of these things while growing up in a farming village in central China where people struggled to grow a wide range of crops, including rice, wheat, soybeans, corn, sweet potatoes, sesame and a variety of vegetables.

Helping Plants Cope

Those struggles are what drive his life's work to this day.

Zhu, a Purdue University professor in the departments of Horticulture and Landscape Architecture and Biochemistry, studies how plants cope with poor environments to improve crops and alleviate hunger. It's a huge challenge, but one he refuses to back down from.

"I want to make breakthroughs in plant biology," Zhu says. "I have this root in agriculture, so I want to see some of my work applied to agriculture. I want to do research that could eventually improve crops to better resist drought and other stresses, and help my parents and other farmers."

That's exactly what he's doing. Part of Zhu's research is in an area called epigenetics. Studying epigenetics means looking at the chemical reactions that switch parts of a plant genome off and on at strategic times and locations.

He also studies a plant hormone called abscisic acid, or ABA, that is produced when plants experience drought. One of the things ABA does is to tell plants to grow deeper roots during drought. Putting more energy into deeper roots can prolong plant life in dry conditions. By understanding this mechanism, Zhu's work could lead to more drought-resistant crops.

Some of his other studies have led to discoveries that include new pathways for plants to tolerate high-salinity soils and drought, and he was the first to identify the most important plant genes for salt stress.

Sticking To It Pays Off

These discoveries have been anything but quick—some have taken more than 20 years—and real-world application also doesn't happen overnight. But Zhu says it's worth the wait.

"That's the nature of research because you are working with unknowns," he says. "You might start with a hypothesis, but often you're proven wrong. With enough patience and persistence, truth will be found, and that's so for any scientific and innovative research."

His persistence is paying off. Zhu's game-changing discoveries in plant genetics and epigenetics earned him a spot in the National Academy of Sciences, and he is one of the most-cited researchers in the world.

Focusing on the Future

"It's gratifying to see our work recognized by others, especially because when I was growing up, my dream was to have a job where I could feed and clothe myself," Zhu says. "But that's not the end of it. That's past work. We have to focus on our current and future work. I want to stay at the forefront. I want to do better.

"The challenge is that we only have so much land. We need to increase yield with less inputs, and we need to reduce the impact of stress so that yields can be stable," he says. "That means we need to learn more about plants. We need to find the genes that make plants more resistant to stress and that use fertilizer more efficiently."

As for Zhu's family, they're still farming in his home village in China. His parents aren't able to do as much anymore, so his sister has taken over. Zhu visits his family each year. He helps on the farm and reminds himself why his research is so important.