Plant biology for the environment and sustainability
Our reliance on plants as resources is ancient and only promises to expand in the future. Faced with a growing population, estimates suggest the need for a 70% increase in agricultural production by 2050 and highlight the parallel challenges of maintaining food security, minimizing environmental damage, and managing water and resource use under shifting climate conditions. Along with efforts to reduce post-harvest losses and waste in the food chain, the intensification of agriculture will be essential to increase productivity. Precision agriculture, the breeding and genetic engineering of new crop varieties, and better management of energy, fertilizer, field systems, and irrigation inputs will also help to meet this challenge. This growth in global production will come in regions where land and water assets are either overused or constrained and in developing countries where smallholder farmers dominate. Any intensification of agriculture also risks increased fertilizer use, degradation of soil quality, water availability issues, salinization, potential contamination from chemicals, and loss of genetic diversity.
The path to increased production requires a variety of approaches that minimize inputs, maximize efficiencies, and limit ecological impact. These goals drive efforts to translate advances in fundamental plant biology toward the application of plants for sustainability. Current agricultural technologies require large energy inputs for soil preparation, irrigation, and the synthesis and application of fertilizers and pesticides; these processes also produce greenhouse gases. One route to reducing those inputs is the development of plants that more efficiently use fertilizers, remove more carbon from the environment, and maintain soil and water quality. Are these challenges new? Not really. The friction between efficient production and use of inputs that drive agriculture to feed the world has always been there; that friction drove the Green Revolution of the 1960s and continues to motivate innovation and the integration of new technologies to tackle the problem. What has changed is the increased rate of population growth and climate change that will push agriculture to the limits in the coming decades, but the tools available to meet these problems have also expanded. Building from a deeper understanding of plant genetics, biochemistry, microbiology, chemistry, and systems biology, plant scientists are working toward the next generation of crops that more efficiently use inputs for growth and mitigate environmental damages.
The modern plant engineering toolkit
Since completion of sequencing the first plant genome in 2000, the increasing amount of data and the development of new technologies have accelerated the discovery and evaluation cycle for plant science. Cheaper next-generation sequencing and improved computational power for data analysis are key for marker-assisted selection and quantitative trait locus (QTL)-guided breeding. The selection of plant traits by using these tools accelerates market entry of new varieties. These same tools are also essential for studies of plant-associated microbiomes that are unraveling the interplay between plants, bacteria, and fungi. In addition to genomic data, imaging technologies now allow large-scale phenotyping of plant growth and development. Noninvasive sensors and high-resolution spectroscopy enable image reconstruction of root and leaf architectures and real-time capture of mineral and nutrient flow. Similarly, monitoring technologies, including drones and satellites, and experimental systems, such as free-air concentration enrichment facilities that simulate altered climate under field conditions, expand experimental trials beyond growth chambers and greenhouses. Precision agriculture is also bringing soil, water, and atmospheric chemists together with plant scientists to simulate and anticipate changes across geographic regions.