The Importance of Plant Research in 2023
November 15, 2022 at 7:38 pm | Updated November 17, 2022 at 5:59 pm | 11 min read
It may sound surprising in this age of accelerating manufacturing, but we need more plant research than ever before.
- We need to provide food security for a growing population in a changing climate. So novel cropping systems are necessary without harming the environment.
- Basic research will improve our understanding of plants to the environment, while translational science will give products to meet consumer needs.
- Portable, precision technology with improved computational powers will be necessary to analyze data that is becoming complex and vast.
Plant research for the coming year and the present decade has to focus on societal demands for sustainable biomass production and protecting the environment. To achieve these goals, scientists predict they will need more portable onsite precise tools, networking, and better research conditions.
Why Research Plants?
Plants have been the source of our food, fodder for animals, clothes, housing material, and medicines. Civilization has been built on the cultivation and management of plant resources. So it is not surprising that plants have been the subject of the earliest research starting from the eighteen century. Learning that plant processes have significant implications for the quality of life and prosperity of societies.
As we understood plant processes, it became clear that we owe our existence and the habitable environment on the planet to green plants and photosynthesis, which produce 98% of all oxygen.
Plant research has also led to the formation of new scientific disciplines and advances. Gregor Mendel discovered the laws of genetics and inheritance working on peas. The protein nature of enzymes was discovered by studying urease. Research on a plant virus contributed to finding the structure of DNA.
Yet industrial development and the growth of urban centers have created a distance between people and nature. This is seen not only among the general public but even within the scientific community, where the appreciation for botany has decreased. Authorities are trying to set this right, and Poland has gone so far as to declare 2022 as the Year of Botany.
Basic and Applied Plant Sciences
However, the same can’t be said about interest in other fields of plant science. Scientists are constantly broadening the horizons of plant research and are also conducting more in-depth studies.
Over the years, there has been more emphasis on applied or translational science. However, we still need more basic plant research too. Today’s applications from food to medicines are based on the work of thousands of basic scientists.
We need more plant research -both basic and applied science – to meet societal challenges like food and nutrition security, climate change, consumer demand for environmental protection, sustainability, and fossil fuel replacements.
Plant scientists are finding themselves and their work in demand to develop novel crop production systems that are climate change-proof, environmentally friendly, and sustainable. Older solutions are, in many cases, not relevant as climate change alters the growing conditions for plants, changes vegetation zones and increases pests, diseases, and stress.
New solutions are also needed to provide for growing populations, taking into account less rainfall, pollution, and loss of agricultural land and soil fertility. Plants are also key to combating climate change and containing various pollution forms.
As society moves away from products of synthetic origin for medicines, building materials, clothes, energy production, and green infrastructure, the spotlight is back on the plants and researchers.
Since plants also regulate ecosystem processes, more research on their relationship with the environment, other plants, and organisms is also necessary.
Scientists suggest rethinking plant science’s importance so that in the future, plant scientists will be considered important enough to be one of the top professions for society, on par with medical doctors and lawyers.
According to Henkhaus et al. 2020, the first Plant Summits were held in 2011 and 2013, and the first collective Decadal Vision for Plant Research was published in 2013. In 2015, the Plant Science Research Network was established with representatives from 15 scientific societies covering agronomy, biochemistry, crop science, ecology, horticulture, plant pathology, soil science, taxonomy, botany, cell biology and development, and chemistry.
The 2019 Plant Summit provides guidance by this scientific community for advancing plant research for the benefit of people and the environment in the “Plant Science Decadal Vision 2020–2030.” This vision goes beyond just naming research topics of interest. It suggests a paradigm shift in how to do plant research in the next ten years.
Research would have to find ways of cultivation for all people’s biomass needs- food, medicine, fiber, etc.- by increasing crop diversity, productivity, and efficiency, while simultaneously improving ecosystem health.
Research would involve hypothesis, data collection, prediction, and rapid problem-solving. Technology is expected to play a crucial role. Automation, improved computation, and experimental approaches would have to be used. The scientists want to prioritize new, non-invasive technology based on sensors and imagery that are portable and simple plug-and-play tools.
To deepen understanding of plant processes, scientists suggest diversifying plant practitioners. The Decadal Vision also emphasizes promoting researchers’ well-being by increasing inclusivity and diversity to make research opportunities and practices fair and accessible to all. Changes in the academic culture, which foster equity, teamwork, and service, are also advocated.
The new vision wants increased participation from communities that have not been represented. The concept speculates that partnerships with industry for faster translation of research findings to product development should lead to more economic growth. The new Plant Research model focuses on better human health, higher environmental quality, and natural resource preservation while achieving its goals, see Figure 1.
Scientists thus see the need for basic and translational research, which should be good news for the research community.
Figure 1: “Realizing the Decadal Vision will have societal impacts. The activities described in this document will have many layers of impact, both directly and indirectly related to the research agenda,” Henkhaus et al., 2020. (Image credits: https://doi.org/10.1002/pld3.252)
Novel Technology and Computation
Technology advancements will continue and increase the trend of miniaturization, AI, and automation. The data that scientists expect to analyze will far exceed current volumes and include multiple data streams. This complex computational analysis is only possible through improved and advanced chemometrics.
Sensor technology, which is already worth billions in agriculture, will require new sensors to monitor various plant processes. This includes internal physiology and biochemistry, to study plant interactions and responses to the environment, stress, and microbes to quantify nutrient fluxes. Studies of root responses, which have begun after recent developments made root imaging possible, will receive much attention from researchers.
Plant management strategies, like precision agriculture and forestry, which will require many new sensor-based tools, will also be developed.
Scientists are banking on using static and video imaging to study biological processes at all scales and probe into internal cellular plant biology. Small and large scaled imaging will identify and quantify stress, pests, diseases, productivity, and mortality in crops and forests.
Many current technologies are destructive, require a laboratory and specialized training, and take time. Therefore the plant scientific communities want to see more investment in developing portable, precise, and fast technologies that they can carry into the field and study phenotypic plant processes, genotypes, and plant responses to the environment.
These technologies can be helpful also for scientists, data analysis centers, and practitioners like ecosystem managers, farmers, and extension staff.
Available Precision Tools
CID Bio-Science Inc is an industry leader in producing portable tools for onsite use for non-destructive analysis of plants. The company has been making precision tools for measuring plant vegetative parameters and physiology, for the last three decades that have been used for agronomy and plant research.
Important Research Questions
Grierson et al. 2011 compiled a list of the hundred most essential questions for plant research. Many of the topics remain relevant. Plant scientists need to address them to meet urgent societal needs. Some of them are covered briefly below for agronomy, ecology, and climate change.
Crop Breeding for Crop Water Use Efficiency
Improving crop productivity with the available land will be necessary to provide food security for an estimated nine billion people by 2050 without further deforestation. Breeding programs that develop high-yielding varieties will be needed. Simultaneously this will require better agronomic practices and soil management. One way of doing this is by improving photosynthetic efficiency, crop water use efficiency, and plant nutrition use.
To improve water use, Noh et al. (2022) used a minirhizotron, the CI-602 Narrow Gauge Root Imager, to find the different root architectures of 11 soybean varieties that could increase above-ground growth and yield in rainfed regions of the USA.
Root studies are examples of basic research that scientists are conducting since root scanners are a recent development. Therefore, there is less information on root architecture, length, and depth of growth.
The root scanner uses transparent root tubes installed in the field during experiments. The roots can grow undisturbed around the tubes. Scientists can scan the root growth using the minirhizotron as often as necessary during the crop cycle to get important basic information and learn about different varieties’ responses to drought.
In the case of the 11 soybean cultivars, the scientists identified two interesting growth patterns among the best performers. Two varieties had a parsimonious root phenotype- the root counts were low, and the root length was less. These varieties were suitable for high-input systems with good irrigation and nutrient supply. The nutrients were used to grow above-ground vegetative shoots.
The other root pattern was shown by one of the cultivars growing in clayey soils, which sent its roots deeper and had more roots only in deeper soil layers. Using the root scanners allowed the scientists to allot the cultivars for different regions and varying agronomic practices. This allocation would not be possible with above-ground plant data alone.
Preserving Natural Resources
There is a trend towards recycling materials to promote circularity, to reduce waste and pollution. In this context, waste coconut coir was tested as a potential fruit-growing substrate. It was essential to establish that the new medium doesn’t interfere with nutrient transportation or cause stress. Since coir is rich in potassium, sodium, and chlorine, there were concerns that it could cause salinity and lead to nutritional imbalance for tender blueberry transplants.
To remove sodium from the coir, a study tested four treatments: well water, ionized water, 2.38 g⋅L–1 mono ammonium phosphate, and 1.75 g⋅L–1 calcium nitrate. After three applications of the treatments, young blueberry plants were transplanted and fertilized once. The greenness of leaves was tested by scanning with the CI-710s SpectraVue Leaf Spectrometer. In addition, the leaf area index, root architecture, and biomass accumulation were recorded.
Adding fertilizers made the coir more saline without removing sodium. But there was no effect on the plant’s health, as there was no difference in greenness. Though microbial respiration increased by adding fertilizers, there was no improvement in root growth and leaf area index, so nutrient sufficiency is a problem, probably due to leaching. This suggests that coconut coir cannot supply the necessary nutrients to blueberries, and more work is needed before it is used as a growing medium.
Estimating Carbon Sequestration
Figure 2: “Spatiotemporal distributions of multiscale LAI assimilation of MBF in Shanchuan town during 2018–2019,” Ji et al. 2021. (Image credits: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jag.2021.102519)
Understanding the carbon cycle at various scales is essential. Different ecosystems and trees of different sizes and canopies can fix varying amounts of carbon. Therefore, different habitats are being studied. Often the estimation uses satellite imagery and models based on the leaf area index. The leaf area index (LAI) is half the total leaf area per unit of ground area and is closely related to photosynthesis and ecosystem productivity.
Since studies of carbon sequestration at different scales are few, Ji et al. (2021) used remotely sensed imagery to get LAI at 20 m, 100 m, and 500 m from Sentinel-2 and Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) for a bamboo forest, which has a high carbon sequestration rate. Bamboo grows green shoots in “on-years” and sheds leaves in “off-years”. Ji et al. followed the changes in LAI over a cycle of on-year and off-year (2018 and 2019) to understand carbon cycling in bamboo forests.
Onsite observed LAI was estimated by a canopy imager with a digital camera with a fisheye lens in five points. The CID Bio-Science’s CI-110 Plant Canopy Imager could also be used for these onsite measurements.
The LAI estimations from remote sensing were used in three models PROSAIL model, LAI dynamic model, and Hierarchical Bayesian Network (HBN) algorithm. They showed that the time series images were sensitive to changes in LAI over the bamboo cycle, see Figure 2. The LAI results were more correlated to off-years than on-years. And the remotely sensed LAI was significantly related to the observed LAI estimated by the canopy imager. So remotely sensed LAI can be used to track carbon sequestration in bamboo forests.
Leaf area is a standard parameter often used to estimate plant productivity, growth, and health in agriculture and forestry. Hence, this simple parameter is used to evaluate crop management methods.
Greenhouse-grown cantaloupe yield and fruit quality are reduced due to downy mildew. To find a remedy, the researchers used five biofilters, Trichoderma viride, Trichoderma harzianum, Bacillus megaterium, Bacillus subtilis, and Pseudomonas fluorescens, along with a chemical fungicide.
Laboratory tests show that the biofilters and the fungicide reduced the germination of the downy mildew fungus Pseudoperonospora cubensis. In the greenhouses, the treatments reduced the severity of the infestation. The chemical fungicide and biofilters improved growth parameters like the number of leaves, leaf area, and total chlorophyll content. The scientists used the CI-202 Portable Laser Leaf Area Meter to make non-destructive scans of leaves to calculate the leaf area.
As a result of improved growth, the yield parameters also improved. The number of fruits per plant and weight of fruits increased. The treatment increased defensive chemicals within the fruits helping them to fight the downy mildew infestation.
Photosynthesis is one of the main processes important to plants, ecosystems, and people. Since plants take in carbon dioxide through the stomata, temperature and light that influence its opening will also affect photosynthesis.
A study investigated the adaptive mechanisms used in the lifecycle of Hyoscyamus muticus L., an economical plant. The plant grows in Eygpt and is adapted to grow in arid areas.
Studying plants in their natural habitat in the fields is crucial in such cases. The scientists were able to conduct onsite analysis by using the portable CI-340 Handheld Photosynthesis System, which measures photosynthesis, stomatal conductance, and transpiration rate. The instrument helped the scientists record all gas exchange rates simultaneously in real time. In addition, they also measured the light intensity in the habitat.
The scientists found that high light intensity during the seedling, flowering, and fruiting stages of the H. muticus, reduced stomatal conductance to lower transpiration. As a result, the photosynthesis rate was reduced, but water use efficiency was increased.
We Need More Plant Scientists
Plant science will become more important in the future, and attracting the brightest for plant research will be necessary. Currently, the school curriculum does not include interesting aspects of plant science. These trends and society’s perceptions must change so that more people opt for plant science. It will also be necessary for plant scientists to work with scientists from other disciplines to improve crops, the environment, and the other ecosystem benefits plants can provide.
Grierson, C. S., Barnes, S. R., Chase, M. W., Clarke, M., Grierson, D., Edwards, K. J., Jellis, G. J., Jones, J. D., Knapp, S., Oldroyd, G., Poppy, G., Temple, P., Williams, R., & Bastow, R. (2011). One hundred important questions facing plant science research. New Phytologist, 192(1), 6–12. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1469-8137.2011.03859.x
Heller, C. R., & Nunez, G. H. (2022). Preplant Fertilization Increases Substrate Microbial Respiration But Does Not Affect Southern Highbush Blueberry Establishment in a Coconut Coir-based Substrate, HortScience, 57(1), 17-21. Retrieved from https://journals.ashs.org/hortsci/view/journals/hortsci/57/1/article-p17.xml
Henkhaus, N., Bartlett, M., Gang, D., Grumet, R., Jordon‐Thaden, I., Lorence, A., Lyons, E., Miller, S., Murray, S., Nelson, A., Specht, C., Tyler, B., Wentworth, T., Ackerly, D., Baltensperger, D., Benfey, P., Birchler, J., Chellamma, S., Crowder, R., … Stern, D. (2020). Plant science decadal vision 2020–2030: Reimagining the potential of plants for a healthy and sustainable future. Plant Direct, 4(8). https://doi.org/10.1002/pld3.252
Ji, J., Li, X., Du, H., Mao, F., Fan, W., Xu, Y., Huang, Z., Wang, J., & Kang, F. (2021). Multiscale Leaf area index assimilation for Moso Bamboo Forest based on sentinel-2 and Modis Data. International Journal of Applied Earth Observation and Geoinformation, 104, 102519. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jag.2021.102519
Kelly, L., Ambrose, B.A., & Stevenson, D.W. (2014, June 30). Why study plants? Science Talk Archive. Retrieved, from https://www.nybg.org/blogs/science-talk/2014/06/why-study-plants/
Khalil, E.K. (2022). Efficiency of Using Some Biological Organisms as Biological Catalysts to Reduce the Incidence of Cantaloupe Downy Mildew Disease Under Greenhouse Conditions. American Journal of Life Sciences, 10(1): 1-9. DOI: 10.11648/j.ajls.20221001.11
Noh, E., Fallen, B., Payero, J., & Narayanan, S. (2022). Parsimonious root systems and better root distribution can improve biomass production and yield of soybean. PLOS ONE, 17(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0270109
Radwan, U. A. A., & Saleh, M. M. (2022). Gas exchange and chlorophyll fluorescence’s characteristics of Hyoscyamus muticus L. at different phenological stages under extreme arid environmental conditions, south-Western Desert, Egypt. Egyptian Journal of Botany. https://doi.org/10.21608/ejbo.2022.87177.1746
Stepanova, A. N. (2021). Plant Biology Research: What is next? Frontiers in Plant Science, 12. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpls.2021.749104
U.S. Department of the Interior. (n.d.). Plants and climate change (U.S. National Park Service). National Parks Service. Retrieved September 15, 2022, from https://www.nps.gov/articles/000/plants-climateimpact.htm
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