July 30, 2014

Securing tomorrow’s food supply by engaging today’s students

There’s a career path filled with opportunities to improve societal well-being, combat devastating illnesses, and protect the environment, yet it is one that many biology students might not have considered.  Despite increasing world awareness, its identity might be surprising: plant biology research.

“The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations) projects that we're going to need about 70% more primary foodstuffs by 2050.  That is more seeds of soy, roots of cassava, grains of rice and so on,” said Gutgsell Endowed Professor of Crop Sciences and Plant Biology Steve Long. “We're improving crop yield by a very small percentage every year, so there's no way we're going to get to 70% on current trajectories.”

Long is a member of the Genomic Ecology of Global Change and Biosystems Design research themes at the Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB) and of the Energy Biosciences Institute.  He was inspired by his participation this June in the Gatsby Plant Science Summer School for undergraduate students, held near York, England.

The week-long intensive course addresses a growing need to promote student interest in plant sciences.  Long delivered a plenary lecture, conducted a Q&A, and met with small groups as well as advising on the design and execution of laboratory activities for high schools.  “The success of this course in exciting that interest was palpable,” Long said.

“I think education about plants really dropped out of high school in the US and UK,” in part because plant sciences are seen as uninteresting and unimportant, Long said.  In actuality, he said, “plants are fundamental to our existence, and we're running out of what they provide.”

"I think education about plants really dropped out of high school in the US and UK. Plants are fundamental to our existence, and we're running out of what they provide."

Long hopes that the University of Illinois may eventually be able to offer similar educational opportunities to biology majors and to high school teachers, who could then share enthusiasm for plant sciences with their students.  Like the Gatsby Summer School, an important goal would be to highlight the social value, excitement, and experimental advantages of plant research.

One advantage that the University of Illinois has to offer for this type of course is easy access to crop experimental field sites on the South Farms.  IGB field research projects such as RIPE (Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency) and SoyFACE, which could provide participants with meaningful hands-on experience, of cutting-edge research.

SoyFACE is an innovative facility for growing crops in a controlled atmosphere that allows researchers to investigate the potential effects of climate change on future crop production – it is the largest facility of its type in the world.  The RIPE Project is combining data from crop bioengineering and photosynthesis research with in silico simulations of plant physiology to find ways to increase the yield of key food crops.  These are then tested by bioengineering and field testing of the bioengineered plants.

Research related to the RIPE Project, which is directed by Long, may lead to other educational resources.  Long and several colleagues are also developing educational software that could allow high school students to design and perform virtual plant biology experiments.  These would allow students to explore many environmental effects on plants in a short space of time, supplementing actual class room experiments.

Claudia Lutz  |  Institute for Genomic Biology  |  University of Illinois

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