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PNNL’s research today may help feed the planet tomorrow

PNNL scientists are collaborating with researchers in Australia to study “resurrection” grass, which could lead to drought-resistent crops. Tripogon, native to Australia and found in Texas and Arizona, can quickly recover after losing as much as 90 percent of its moisture.
PNNL scientists are collaborating with researchers in Australia to study “resurrection” grass, which could lead to drought-resistent crops. Tripogon, native to Australia and found in Texas and Arizona, can quickly recover after losing as much as 90 percent of its moisture.

January is a time for New Year’s resolutions, and many of us might be trying to eat a little healthier and cut back on certain foods.

While we might be focused on what we are eating, how often do we think about where our food comes from or the challenges that farmers face in growing it? How is agriculture impacted by climate change, for instance, if there are longer periods of drought? How do land-use policies affect food production, say, when cropland is lost to other purposes?

At the Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, researchers seek to answer these and other questions related to the environmental impacts of agriculture, the role of microbes and how to optimize food production.

For example, PNNL scientists are looking at how microbes work together in communities to do things that affect crops, such as process carbon in soil. Some of our scientists participated in a recent National Academies meeting that brought together experts from many disciplines to identify the biggest challenges, opportunities and knowledge gaps in food and agricultural research. Their insights helped shape a research agenda and national strategy that will be published in the coming months.

In another project that involves Australian collaborators from Queensland University of Technology, researchers are applying their expertise in plant genomics (the study of an organism’s complete set of genes) and systems microbiology to better understand the fundamental mechanisms that help plants withstand extreme drought conditions. They are studying a “resurrection” grass that quickly springs back to life even after its leaves and shoots get dry and crispy during times of very little water.

Because the grass is a close relative of cereals, rice, sorghum and maize, the work may eventually lead to more drought-resistant food crops.

Speaking of grains, PNNL scientists have figured out how to engineer and cultivate a new variety of rice that not only provides a richer food source, but emits nearly no methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Today, rice paddies account for about 17 percent of annual methane emissions worldwide. By adding a single gene from barley to rice, our scientists were able to inhibit the production of methane by the microbes living in the soil as the rice grows.

Closer to home, at a Washington State University Tri-Cities greenhouse, PNNL researchers successfully demonstrated a promising fertilizer they developed that may allow farms to achieve the same yields while using less fertilizer and helping the environment. The controlled-release, solid-nitride fertilizer is made from coal fly ash by a high-temperature, fluidized-bed process and slowly releases nutrients to plants rather than dissolving immediately in soil. That means more goes to the crop and less remains in the ground, where it can leach into waterways or get converted to nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas 300 times worse than carbon dioxide.

Finally, we are improving land-use models that assess how changes in the environment might affect crop yields. We are incorporating more realistic processes into the models for simulating crop growth by taking into account common farming practices. For example, we are studying changes farmers may make in what crops they plant, as well as when and how they are irrigated and fertilized. This research is expected to help policy makers — and farmers — make better decisions.

As January comes to a close, some of us are already struggling to stick with our New Year’s resolutions. At PNNL, however, our researchers remain committed to providing the science and technology that may lead to innovative solutions for tomorrow’s agriculture. Now that’s food for thought.

Steven Ashby is the director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and a columnist for the Tri-City Herald.

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