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Less is More

Noble Research Institute forms new research clusters to address agriculture's most pressing problems, starting with how to grow additional food while conserving resources.

By J. Adam Calaway, Director of Communications and Public Relations
and Courtney Leeper, Writer

Posted May 13, 2015

To feed the world, you must first feed the plants.

History has proven this to be true. Between the 1940s and the late 1960s, the Green Revolution focused on breeding plants that would produce higher yields with the help of additional inputs, such as water and nutrients.

The formula was simple: new plant varieties plus plenty of additional nutrition and protection equaled much higher yields and abundant food.

The idea worked. Norman Borlaug, the Father of the Green Revolution, was credited with saving a billion lives from starvation, and he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. The world rejoiced and has continued these practices for decades.

With the world population expected to climb from 7.3 billion people today to more than 9 billion by 2050, researchers, plant breeders and agricultural producers are faced with the challenge of feeding the largest population in recorded human history. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that food production must increase 70 percent to support the additional 2 billion people.

The simple solution is just feed the plants more. Farmers and researchers could return to the previous model, increase inputs and wait for the expected bump in yield.

Just one problem: this time around, increasing food production will have to come while decreasing input use due to increasing prices, decreasing water availability for agricultural use and climate changes. Less water. Less land. Less fertilizer. Still, there must be more food.

The process of growing food with less resources is called low-input agriculture. And it's going to help save the world from starving and make the world more sustainable.

malay saha and wolf scheibleResearchers Wolf Scheible, Ph.D., and Malay Saha, Ph.D., discuss initial results from a colorimetric assay, which assessed phosphate in Medicago truncatula leaves.

Unlocking secrets

For almost 70 years, the Noble Research Institute's research has contributed to solving regional agriculture's most pressing problems. As agriculture enters a new era of challenges, the Noble Research Institute enters a new era of research capabilities.

In 2014, the organization created five research clusters (see sidebar), drawing together researchers from each division to address significant agricultural problems in the Southern Great Plains, then applying those outcomes to global challenges.

Low-input agriculture was pegged early in the process as a cluster, and, since its inception mere months ago, research has already taken shape. Leading the cluster is Malay Saha, Ph.D., from the Forage Improvement Division, and Wolf Scheible, Ph.D., from the Plant Biology Division.

Narrowing their focus, these Noble Research Institute scientists selected three primary inputs to research: water, nitrogen and phosphorus. Each input is critical for plant vitality, and each is limited. By researching the ways plants acquire and use these inputs, more efficient plants can be developed, advancing the mission to produce more with less.

When it comes down to it, current crop and forage varieties are not always the best managers of their resources.

But there are a few out there that do spend their resources wisely. Saha and Scheible's goal is to find them, unlock their secrets and breed varieties that efficiently use inputs.

Water is essential, but it's limited in a land plagued by multiple years of drought. Drought wreaks havoc on plants trying to soak up precious water through their roots, and the FAO expects droughts to become more frequent and intense throughout the world in the coming decades.

Tall fescue has formed a naturally occurring, symbiotic relationship with a fungal endophyte a microscopic organism that lives within the plant. The fungal endophyte helps protect the plant in drought conditions and, to some extent, from insects. In return, the plant provides shelter for its friend. Saha's group works with other researchers at the Noble Research Institute to see how endophytes help plants use water more efficiently.

"There will be few topics that eclipse the importance of water usage in the coming generation," Saha said. "We want to learn the mechanisms that nature has already put in place and see if we can extend them to our widely used crop plants."

Hungry plants

Inputs of nitrogen and phosphorus are key to the agricultural production system. Farmers apply nitrogen and phosphorus to the soil to foster healthy growth. Plants require those nutrients, but they aren't always good at absorbing and utilizing them. Oftentimes, a majority of the nutrients are lost, running into lakes and streams, causing environmental damage and eating up precious time and resources. If researchers can produce plants that consistently take up and utilize nutrients more efficiently, it's a win-win situation all around.

Specifically, Noble Research Institute scientists are studying phosphorus utilization efficiency in alfalfa and related species. Tucked away on the coasts of Mediterranean countries northern Africa, Israel, Spain are a few hundred different lines of Medicago, the genus of plants to which alfalfa belongs. Just like humans have different physical characteristics, plants within the same family develop different special abilities. Researchers study these plants to find the naturally occurring lines that don't require as much phosphorus to produce plentiful and healthy foliage.

A plant has a feedback mechanism similar to that of the human body's mechanism of letting us know when we can't eat any more food. We can delay the mechanism and continue eating, and so can plants. Scheible's group is investigating how to make plants "hungry" for the phosphorus they're given so they will not let any go to waste.

There's a balance to this research. Like humans, too much of a good thing can be bad, so the Noble researchers are also looking for ways to make a plant take up more phosphorus without taking up too much and making itself sick.

The same principles are being examined in winter wheat. While many researchers study phosphorus efficiency in wheat, the Noble Research Institute is unique in looking at phosphorus efficiency in dual-purpose wheat wheat that is both grazed by cattle and used to produce grain milled for flour.

"In studying plants for phosphorus efficiency, we want to find those that use phosphorus wisely," Scheible said. "When we remove phosphorus from the growing medium, we're looking for those that still grow good amounts of biomass so that we aren't only conserving resources but also ensuring we can meet future demand."

Nitrogen is the nutrient plants need most. And as Saha said they get a little greedy with it. "Plants like to accrue more nitrogen than they need and keep it as a luxury," Saha said. Saha's goal is to decrease the amount of nitrogen needed for bermudagrass and winter wheat production by 10 percent. To do so, he is working with other Noble Research Institute scientists such as Kelly Craven, Ph.D., whose lab found fungi that boosts biomass production. Saha's group is building on this research to see how crop plants react to being grown with these fungi and less nitrogen.

As Scheible and Saha's groups seek plants that use their resources efficiently, they can study the genes that control those decisions and discover why. Then they will apply that knowledge to developing plants that use less nitrogen, phosphorus and water but still remain productive. Plants that naturally conserve resources.

"We're trying to understand how plants use these inputs so we can transfer that knowledge to the process of breeding stronger, more efficient plants," Scheible said. "If we can get a plant to better manage its resources, that will be a great thing for all of us the environment, agricultural producers and consumers."

Noble Research Institute Research Clusters

The five research clusters bring together expertise and resources from all three of the Noble Research Institute's operating divisions. These clusters create enable the Noble Research Institute to better identify and solve key agricultural problems along the entire spectrum, from the soil-plant interface to the plant-animal interface.

The five clusters are:

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