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The Spartan scientists helping agriculture adapt to a changing planet

Michigan State University’s renowned plant researchers are collaborating on solutions to grow more abundant, nutritious and resilient plants that will feed a growing population

Agriculture looks nothing like it did when Michigan State University was founded as the nation’s first institution to teach scientific agriculture 168 years ago, and the next 168 years will require as many or more advancements to meet the needs of our changing planet.

The statistics are familiar. The world’s population is expected to increase by nearly 50% in the next century, while the demand for agriculture crops is expected to more than double by 2050. The extreme weather anomalies caused by climate change are expected to continue and worsen in the future, which could substantially reduce agricultural production globally. Meeting these challenges requires scientists such as those at MSU who are applying the latest science and technological innovations to solve tomorrow’s problems in a sustainable way.

Number 11 globally for plant and animal science. U S news and world report. Number 14 globally for agriculture. Quacquarelli symonds.MSU is ranked No. 14 globally for agriculture and No. 11 for plant and animal science. Spanning multiple departments across the university, MSU has one of the highest concentrations of plant scientists in the world, and recent investments by the Michigan Legislature will bolster research capacity through $53 million in funding to update its Plant Science Greenhouses and Dairy Cattle Teaching and Research Center. With its 5,200-acre campus outfitted with research laboratories, greenhouses and trial farms as well as 14 outlying agricultural research centers strategically located throughout Michigan, the university fosters an interdisciplinary environment where collaboration and innovation are second nature.

Many of MSU’s agricultural innovations are home-grown locally in the lab and field, but their applications span the state, nation and world.

Improving plant nutrition from the inside out

In the coming decades, the quality of crops will be just as important as the quantity.

“The population is growing, resources are shrinking, and it’s obvious that we have to improve plants,” says Federica Brandizzi, a plant biologist and MSU Research Foundation Professor in the College of Natural Science. “Plants are the primary providers of food and oxygen to the planet.”

Federica BrandizziRaised on a farm, Brandizzi’s respect for the natural world is hardwired. She’s dedicated her career to finding creative methods for modifying plant cells, helping them to overcome limitations. And she nurtures that same creativity in her team.

A member of the MSU-DOE Plant Research Lab, Brandizzi and her team are focused on growing plants that take up less space, provide higher crop yields and maintain their nutritional value. One solution is to help plants grow larger using molecular genetics that produce more amino acids inside the plant. Amino acids turn on the signal for plants to grow and make the plant more resilient to stress.

Another focus of Brandizzi and her team involves using enzymes to soften the rigid cell walls of plants such as soybeans and sorghum. These more flexible and elastic walls allow these crops to grow, accumulate more dry biomass used as fuel and store more nutrients. The team is also exploring ways for plants to use less water. For example, by controlling the pore-like stomata openings on a plant’s leaves, plants can retain more water and require less of it to grow.

Being able to grow plants with very little water isn’t just of vital importance here on Earth. It will be essential for growing plants in space, something with which Brandizzi has firsthand experience. Recently, she sent a package of Arabidopsis seeds to space on NASA’s Artemis I mission to explore how humanity can sustain itself outside of Earth. Some of the seeds were fortified with amino acids and some were not to see how these seeds will grow after being exposed to space.

“We are really excited to see what will happen to these seeds,” Brandizzi says. “This could help us grow plants in space.”

Read the full story on MSUToday.