Talking to Plants: The Future of Crop Monitoring

The future is now with the introduction of a new field called Digital Biology, where researchers aim to achieve two-way communication with plants, in order to learn what the plant needs — whether it be water, nutrients, light, or another factor — and respond.

Digital biology is being pioneered by a brand-new Center for Research on Programmable Plant Systems (CROPPS), which is headed by researchers from colleges all across Cornell: the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the College of Engineering, and the Ann S. Bowers College of Computing and Information Science. In addition to Cornell, partner institutions of CROPPS include the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), the University of Arizona, and the Boyce Thompson Institute (based on the Cornell campus).

At the heart of this project are plants endowed with new ways of expressing biological processes — including hidden processes that occur inside tissues or underground — through a readable signal that we can develop technologies to capture.” Abraham Stroock, CROPPS co-director and professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, told CALS News.

By interpreting the signals from these biological processes, immediately fulfilling plants’ needs is far from the only benefit of digital biology. Researchers will be better able to understand plant reactions to stressors and breed them to respond better in situations where climate change has drastically altered their environment; this may act as an accelerated evolution. In addition, researchers are also exploring the delivery of molecular signals to prompt responses to environmental stressors.

The center is approaching digital biology from several different fronts: for one, CROPPS participant and assistant professor of plant biology Margaret Frank is studying root-to-shoot signalling in tomato plants using fluorescence. She hopes to find the genetic origins of proteins for environmental responses, so that crops can be bred to better respond to climate changes. Meanwhile, Stroock (quoted above) is working on digital sensing tools, such as nanoscale sensors and fiber optics for leaf water status. With this, farmers can automatically water their crops at the exact right time without even having to step foot in the field. This multidisciplinary approach will allow the researchers to robustly address the challenges posed by climate change, and to rapidly get tools and management practices to farmers in the field.

Read more about CROPPS and its projects on CALS News.

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Jules Hart

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