crop performance

Drought knows no borders

The Australian Plant Phenomics Facility (APPF) was delighted to welcome His Excellency Mr Mohamed Khairat, Ambassador of The Arab Republic of Egypt, to its Adelaide node recently.

Egyptians share our love of wheat, however, they are heavily reliant on wheat imports which are struggling to keep up with demand. As a remedy, 1.5 million hectares of Egyptian land has been set aside for local wheat production, but there are challenges ahead. Egyptian wheat growers suffer from the same yield limiting issues of heat and drought as we do here in southern Australia.

While touring the facility, His Excellency shared his enthusiasm for future collaboration with the APPF’s Dr Trevor Garnett.

“There is a wealth of knowledge and experience at the APPF and the Waite Campus of the University of Adelaide in plant phenotyping and wheat production. His Excellency sees exciting opportunities for Egyptian scientists and PhD students to collaborate on research and share ideas on how to improve this essential crop”, said Dr Garnett.

abassador-of-egypt-250117-pic1

His Excellency Mr Mohamed Khairat, Ambassador of The Arab Republic of Egypt (pictured right) talks with Dr Trevor Garnett in the DroughtSpotter greenhouse at The Plant Accelerator®, Australian Plant Phenomics Facility (Adelaide node)

 

Major investment in plant root phenotyping to answer key questions

screen-shot-2017-01-24-at-11-16-27-am

3-D image of root architecture – Lynch Laboratory, The Pennsylvania State University, USA

It all starts in the roots

Australian agriculture operates in a largely harsh, resource limited (nutrients, water) environment so the role of plant roots is even more vital to crop performance.

While advances in technology have resulted in a tenfold increase in crop productivity over the past century, soil quality has declined. Advanced root systems that increase soil organic matter can improve soil structure, fertiliser efficiency, water productivity, crop yield and climate resilience, while mitigating topsoil erosion — all of which provide near-term and sustained economic value.

It is acknowledged within the international plant science and phenotyping community that root phenotyping is a critical component for crop improvement, but no ideal hardware solution has been developed yet. There is always a compromise between destructive and non-destructive measurement, throughput and resolution, and ultimately, cost.

Recognition of these challenges and increased research investment to find the answers is now coming to the fore in international plant science.

USD $7 million for plant root research granted

Researchers in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences have just received a USD $7 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, to design a low-cost, integrated system that can identify and screen for high-yielding, deeper-rooted crops.

The interdisciplinary team, led by Jonathan Lynch, distinguished Professor of Plant Nutrition, will combine a suite of technologies designed to identify phenotypes and genes related to desirable root traits, with the goal of enhancing the breeding of crop varieties better adapted for nitrogen and water acquisition and carbon sequestration.

“With ARPA-E’s support, we plan to create DEEPER, a revolutionary phenotyping platform for deeper-rooted crops, which will integrate breakthroughs in non-destructive field phenotyping of rooting depth, root modeling, robotics, high-throughput 3D imaging of root architecture and anatomy, gene discovery, and genomic selection modeling,” Lynch said.

“ARPA-E invests in programs that draw on a broad set of disciplines and require the bold thinking we need to build a better energy future,” said ARPA-E Director, Ellen D. Williams.

The project is part of ARPA-E’s Rhizosphere Observations Optimizing Terrestrial Sequestration, or ROOTS, program, which is aimed at developing crops that enable a 50 percent increase in carbon deposition depth and accumulation, while also reducing nitrous oxide emissions (a contributor to greenhouse gas) by 50 percent and increasing water productivity by 25 percent.

Read the full article, by Charles Gill from The Pennsylvania State University, here.

UDC Plant Science Centre

Through a € 1.3m investment from Science Foundation Ireland, the Integrated Plant Phenomics and Future Experimental Climate Platform has been established at University College Dublin (UCD) in Ireland. The combination of infrastructure and facilities available to researchers will represent the first of its kind globally.

The platform will be housed in the same building at UCD allowing seamless transition from experiment to scanner. It will consist of a large capacity 3D X-ray CT scanner which uses X-rays taken from multiple angles to non-destructively build-up a 3D image of whole plants and their internal structures, both above and below ground with fast (minutes) scan times and six reach-in, high-spec plant climate chambers with full (de)humidification capabilities. Novel custom additions will include full-spectrum variable LEDs, enabling more accurate representation of sunlight conditions experienced by crops under field conditions. The chambers will integrate thermal imaging to continuously capture leaf temperature and inferred ecophysiological processes (gas exchange).

Breakthroughs in crop/plant/soil/food science will be possible, particularly below ground and at night, because the consequences of climate change or new crop breeds on below-ground /night-time processes have not been readily accessible before the advance of X-ray CT, thermal imaging and integration of these components into an infrastructure platform.

The Centre unites a large number of UCD plant scientists that investigate fundamental and applied aspects of plant science and work alongside industry in exploiting research breakthroughs.

Read more here.

Danforth Plant Science Center

A new industrial-scale X-ray Computed Tomography (X-ray CT) system at the Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri, USA, is the first of its kind in the U.S. academic research sector dedicated to plant science and can provide accelerated insight into how root systems affect plant growth. The technology was established in late July 2016 under a collaborative multi-year Master Cooperation Agreement with Valent BioSciences Corporation (VBC) and is also supported with funds from a recent National Science Foundation grant.

“X-ray imaging has been a mainstay in medical and industrial research and diagnostics for many decades, yet it is rarely used in plant science,” said Chris Topp, Ph.D., assistant member of the Danforth Center and principal investigator for the project. “The X-ray CT system will allow us to ‘see’ roots in soil and study plants as a connected system of roots and shoots growing in diverse environments.”

“This system is unlike any other in the United States,” said said Keith Duncan, research scientist in the Topp Lab and manager of the new system. “It gives us a great deal of control over the X-ray conditions and will allow us to gather structural data on any object we put into the machine. It provides us with an internal look at not only the root systems, but what’s going on inside the stem and other parts of the plant without taking invasive measures such as removing the plant from the ground or cutting into it.”

In addition to grain crops, this project will also advance research in root and tuber crops such as cassava, potato, groundnut and others that are important for food security in many regions around the globe, but are especially hard to study.

The project combines state-of-the-art technology with computational analysis, quantitative genetics and molecular biology to understand root growth and physiology to assist researchers in understanding roots as they grow in real time in real soil. Both Topp and Duncan agree, this collaboration is just the tip of the iceberg.

“I expect that in a short time, the X-ray imager will catalyze numerous research projects among Danforth Center, St. Louis, national and international researchers that were previously not possible,” said Chris Topp, Ph.D., assistant member of the Danforth Center and principal investigator for the project.

Read more here. Learn more about the partnership and X-ray system here.

Hounsfield Facility for Rhizosphere Research

The Hounsfield Facility for Rhizosphere Research is a unique platform established with €3.5 million in funding from the European Research Council, the Wolfson Foundation, BBSRC, and the University of Nottingham. It accommodates ERC funded postdoctoral researchers and PhD students, X-ray imaging research equipment and automated growth facilities in one state-of-the-art building and fully automated greenhouse complex.

A key impediment to genetic analysis of root architecture in crops has been the ability to image live roots in soil non-invasively. Recent advances in microscale X-ray Computed Tomography (μCT) now permit root phenotyping. However, major technical and scientific challenges remain before μCT can become a high throughput phenotyping approach.

This unique high throughput root phenotyping facility exploits recent advances in μCT imaging, biological image analysis, wheat genetics and mathematical modelling to pinpoint the key genes that control root architecture and develop molecular markers and new crop varieties with improved nutrient and water uptake efficiency.

The facility’s ambitious multi-disciplinary research program will be achieved through six integrated work packages. The first 3 work packages were designed create high-throughput μCT (WP1) and image analysis (WP2) tools that will be used to probe variation in root systems architecture within wheat germplasm collections (WP3). Work packages 4-6 will identify root architectures that improve water (WP4) and nitrate uptake efficiencies (WP5) and pinpoint the genes that regulate these traits. In parallel, innovative mathematical models simulating the impact of root architecture and soil properties will be developed as tools to assess the impact of architectural changes on uptake of other nutrients in order to optimise crop performance (WP6).

screen-shot-2017-01-24-at-11-14-23-am

The Hounsfield Facility for Rhizosphere Research, University of Nottingham, UK

 

Drip-fed success

The Australian Plant Phenomics Facility (APPF) is pleased to announce the new DroughtSpotter precision irrigation platform has been fully tested and commissioned, and is now ready to support your plant phenomics research.

The DroughtSpotter is a gravimetric platform with precision irrigation allowing accurate and reproducible water application for drought stress or related experiments.

droughtspotter-and-cecilia-and-viviana

Left:  Wheat plants on the DroughtSpotter  –  Right:  Cecilia and Viviana from Monash University harvest sorghum plants during their research

A number of pilot projects were carried out to test the platform with excellent results.

Monash University researchers, led by Associate Professor Ros Gleadow, investigated the impacts of dhurrin (a chemical that is toxic to grazing animals) on drought tolerance in sorghum plants. Plants were grown under a range of drought stresses and then harvested throughout growth for biomass characterisation, metabolomics and transcriptomic responses.

“We found the DroughtSpotter to be an excellent platform to apply accurate, reproducible amounts of water to large numbers of individual plants for growth and compositional analysis under different levels of water limitation,”said Associate Professor Gleadow.

Led by Professor Steve Tyerman, researchers from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology at the University of Adelaide and TA EEA-CONICET Mendoza, Argentina investigated the relationship between hydraulic and stomatal conductance and its regulation by root and leaf aquaporins under water stress.

“A better understanding of these mechanisms is highly relevant to irrigation scheduling and to ensure sustainable vineyard management in a context of water scarcity” said Professor Tyerman.

“The DroughtSpotter platform allowed us to achieve precise control over soil moisture and vine water stress, which was the most critical aspect to the success of this project.”

The DroughtSpotter greenhouse is available to all publicly or commercially funded researchers. For further information, please visit the APPF website or contact Dr Trevor Garnett.

To read the DroughtSpotter pilot project reports:  “Drought Response in Low-Cyanogenic Sorghum bicolor Mutants”  and  “Investigating the relationship between hydraulic and stomatal conductance and its regulation by root and leaf aquaporins under progressive water stress and recovery, and exogenous application of ABA in grapevine”

Phenotyping takes to the skies

This year the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility (APPF) partnered with the Unmanned Research Aircraft Facility (URAF) at the University of Adelaide to provide improved phenotyping capabilities to support Australia plant and agricultural scientists.

The researchers use sensors on board remotely piloted aircraft to monitor plant growth and vigour for agricultural and ecological research. Platforms range from multi-copters to fixed wing aircraft, carrying cameras and multispectral and thermal sensors. Imagery captured produce GIS (geographic information system) layers used to integrate with field data to further develop relationships between plant growth, environmental conditions and plant treatment. The potential to measure parameters on field trials such as establishment, height, biomass, stress and nutritional status can be explored using this technology.

A recent episode on the youth science television show ‘Scope’ features the APPF field phenotyping capacity with Dr Ramesh Raja Searan from the research team demonstrating the use of drones to investigate wheat tolerant of sodic soils. You can watch the episode here (the story commences at 16 min 19 sec)… https://tenplay.com.au/channel-eleven/scope/season-3/episode-131

ramesh-with-uav

Dr Ramesh Raja Searan demonstrating field phenotyping

 

Life is better with a “fun-gi”

Fungi colonise the roots of all cereal crops in a mutually beneficial association where the plant benefits from greater stress tolerance through improved water and mineral intake in exchange for carbohydrates for the fungi. The challenge in managing crop productivity and stress resilience is the unpredictability of plant growth responses when exposed to the fungi. It is possible to have too much or too little of a good thing! How do we get it right to avoid a detrimental impact on the plant and future crop production?

PhD student Rohan Riley, from Western Sydney University, is attempting to explain this unpredictability in terms of resource limitation by introducing fungal communities to plants which are isolated from soils containing high or low levels of salinity and analysing the effects on plant stress at the phenotypic level. He is undertaking his research at The Plant Accelerator® after being awarded a Postgraduate Student Internship Grant with the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility (APPF) in 2015.

”Using daily phenotyping following the application of salt stress and controlled watering-to-weight in The Plant Accelerator® allowed for an unprecedented resolution and range of plant genetic changes in response to combinations of nutrient level, salinity and two different fungal communities that would not otherwise be achievable in a regular greenhouse,”says PhD student, Rohan Riley.

rohan_brachy

”As a PhD student with limited experience in greenhouse experiments, the high controlled growth conditions, large-scale automation, digital imaging and software technology (high-throughput phenotyping) at The Plant Accelerator® provided me with the work-space, expertise and technical support to make a complicated experiment possible,”says Rohan.

The grain model Brachypodium distanchion was chosen to provide the greatest ease of knowledge transfer into many other crop plants with the view to developing future crops with greater resistance to environmental changes.

“It has been an amazing experience to conduct this experiment at The Plant Accelerator®. I am walking away from the facility with a big smile on my face, an incredible dataset for my PhD research and invaluable experience in greenhouse based plant research,’ says Rohan.

Thank you Rohan for being such a “fun guy” and a great addition to the team. It’s been a pleasure hosting you at The Plant Accelerator®!

Applications for the next round of APPF Postgraduate Student Internship Awards close on 30 November 2016.

To find out more about Rohan’s research:  https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Rohan_Riley

To find out more about Postgraduate Student Internship Grants, Scholarships and other programs at the Australian Plant Phenomics Facility:  http://www.plantphenomics.org.au/education/