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Dave Burbank
Dave Burbank

Digital Dialogue with Plants

by Krishna Ramanujan, Cornell Chronicle

A new multi-institution, transdisciplinary center will develop systems for two-way communication with plants, allowing scientists to remotely sense a plant’s biology and its immediate ecosystem, in hopes of one day using the information to improve plant growth.

The new Center for Research on Programmable Plant Systems (CROPPS), funded by a five-year, $25 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant, aims to grow a new field called digital biology.

CROPPS will be led by researchers from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Engineering, and the Cornell Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science. Partner institutions include the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC); the University of Arizona; and the Boyce Thompson Institute, at Cornell.

CROPPS will develop technologies connected to the internet and the cloud—creating an Internet of Living Things—to listen to and learn how plants sense and respond to their environments. As these tools develop, they will be made more interactive. The ultimate goal is two-way communication, where scientists receive information and respond to what a plant needs, or to work with the plant’s genetics to affect physical outcomes.

“At the heart of this project are plants endowed with new ways of expressing biological processes—including hidden processes that occur inside tissues or underground—through a readable signal that we can develop technologies to capture,” said CROPPS Codirector Abraham Duncan Stroock ’95, Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

“A new understanding of how a plant responds to its environment will help us breed plants that can respond more appropriately to novel and highly variable environments in which they did not evolve,” said CROPPS Director Susan R. McCouch PhD ’90, School of Integrative Plant Science. “We need to accelerate the natural process of evolution because climate change has disrupted plants’ ability to ‘read’ the environment.”

The information these systems gather will help researchers better understand how to manage nutrients and water, for example, and how microbes work with plants to help them grow. Eventually, such knowledge could help scientists improve crop management.

“Do we put nitrogen on at a certain time?” McCouch said. “We will learn when, how much, and why. Importantly, we’ll start to learn how much of the plant’s vigor and growth and reproductive potential is better managed by microbes.”

The project will also explore how to deliver molecular signals to prompt plants to respond to environmental stressors.

At first, the center will work toward developing digital plant sensing tools connected to the cloud and the internet. Some early examples include work by Stroock to develop nanoscale sensors and fiber optics to measure water status just inside a leaf’s surface, where water in plants is most actively managed. Such a tool would be minimally invasive and will not only advance understanding of basic plant biology, but offer information for breeding more drought-resistant crops.

Another example of work that has helped define the concept of programmable plants comes from CROPPS participant Margaret H. Frank PhD ’14, School of Integrative Plant Science, who studies how tomato plants capture natural signals in roots that communicate with the leaves to drive a biological response. Furthermore, those signals from roots, the hidden part of the plant, can be displayed via fluorescence in the leaves and reported via the internet. Frank is currently working on a project that uses computational analysis to determine the role of mRNAs in root-to-shoot signaling. She is investigating whether certain mobile mRNAs could be introduced in grafts where they carry genetic codes for proteins that engender a response to an environmental stress, such as those caused by climate changes. 

“NSF Science and Technology Centers are large-scale initiatives intended to bring a fresh, vigorous approach to research integrating multiple disciplines,” said Emmanuel P. Giannelis, vice president for research and innovation. “By bringing one of these centers to Cornell, this team’s bold plan addresses a sustainability challenge of tremendous societal impact, and I look forward to the scientific and technological advancements that I am confident will result from their work.”

Other principal investigators include José F. Martínez, Electrical and Computer Engineering; Steve Moose, a crop geneticist at UIUC; and Rebecca Mosher, a molecular and cellular biologist at the University of Arizona. Hakim Weatherspoon, Computer Science, will serve as an associate director of the center.

Originally published on the Cornell Chronicle website as “$25M center will use digital tools to 'communicate' with plants."