Researchers develop tools to listen and talk to plants with $ 25 million from NSF



By Rosemary Brandt, Faculty of Agriculture and Life Sciences


The world’s largest robotic field scanner is mounted on a 30-ton steel gantry crane moving along 200-meter steel rails over 1.5 acres of energy sorghum at the Maricopa Agricultural Center.

In the race to develop new technologies and methods to support sustainable agriculture and endangered ecosystems, scientists hope to bring an important voice to the conversation: the plants themselves.

A $ 25 million grant from the National Science Foundation will allow researchers at the University of Arizona, Cornell University, the Boyce Thompson Institute and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign to do so by through the new Programmable Plant Systems Research Center.

CROPPS will develop the emerging field of digital biology and develop new methods to observe, record and control the responses of plants to their environment. The information these systems collect will be shared through networked online databases – creating an “Internet of Living Things” – to help researchers support plant systems in a changing global climate.

“Plants send us signals and they tell us things,” said Rebecca Mosher, principal investigator on the project at UArizona and associate professor at the School of Plant Sciences. “Can we better interpret these signals to understand what they are doing and what they need?” “

Through the grant from the NSF Science and Technology Center, Arizona will receive $ 3.5 million over the next five years to leverage expertise in plant molecular biology, data analysis to help plants to report on their experiences digitally in real time and with remote sensing technology, such as the robotic field scanner at the university’s Maricopa agricultural center.

Internet of living things

The concept of the Internet of Things is not new. In fact, consumers have already incorporated technology into their daily lives, Mosher explained.

“Newer devices like thermostats, refrigerators, and even microwaves are designed with built-in sensors that we can connect to our phones, allowing us to check things at home or even turn off the air conditioner or the lights of a half-country, “said Mosher, a member of the university’s BIO5 institute. “We want to apply this concept and this technology to living plant systems.”

Remote sensing technologies have been used in agriculture since the 1950s. Drones, probes and advanced imagery can help farmers identify patches in their fields that need more nutrients or water and even detect agents. pathogens threatening crops. The Internet of Living Things would exploit existing technology and develop new methods of detecting the needs of plants on a larger biological scale.

“We have engineers on the project who will be working to create new technologies to collect this data,” Mosher said. “Imagine robots able to swim in the ground to observe roots or drone technology capable of capturing hyperspectral imagery – those wavelengths that we cannot see.”

To manage and translate the massive amounts of sensor data produced by these devices, the team will draw on the computational infrastructure and complex analysis expertise provided by CyVerse, an open science workspace led by the UArizona. for collaborative data-driven discovery.

“The Internet of Things is a hallmark of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which was a key area of ​​interest for the university,” said the president of the University of Arizona. Robert C. Robbins. “The work of Dr Mosher and his team is not only fascinating, but also has the potential to solve critical challenges such as how to make agriculture more sustainable and other pressing issues facing farmers around the world. “

Cultures for the future

The information gathered can help researchers not only better understand how plants interact with their environment, but also develop new crop breeding techniques to meet the challenges of a changing global climate.

“This project represents a fundamental change in the way biologists study plants,” said Duke Pauli, assistant professor at the Faculty of Plant Sciences. “For the first time, we will be able to communicate with plants, which will allow us to explore how they react to dynamic environments in which they have not evolved and potentially produce new plants for our changing environment. “

As a molecular biologist, Mosher is very enthusiastic about devising new pathways for plants to communicate with their human counterparts.

“We want to develop systems to better understand what plants are telling us in their own language, for example, ‘This growth pattern means I would like more nitrogen, please,'” Mosher said.

Other UArizona investigators on the project include molecular biologists Jesse woodson, Marc Beilstein and Judith Brun from the School of Plant Sciences, as well as Nirav Merchant, director of the Data Science Institute.

“If our research is to have a transformative impact, whether it’s mitigating climate change or creating the bioscience jobs of the future, we need to harness the complex networks of genes, proteins and other biomolecules in it. ‘work and the non-linear opportunities they present ”, mentioned Shane Burgess, vice-president of the Division of Agriculture, Life Sciences and Veterinary Sciences, and Cooperative Extension. “This team opens the door to understanding the intricacies of plant systems and applying that knowledge to the challenges ahead.”


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