Category Archives: agriculture

Nanoparticle fertilizer and dreams of a new ‘Green’ revolution

There were hints even while it was happening that the ‘Green Revolution’ of the 1960s was not all it was touted to be. (For those who haven’t come across the term before, the Green Revolution was a better way to farm, a way that would feed everyone on earth. Or, that was the dream.)

Perhaps this time, they’ll be more successful. From a Jan. 15, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily, which offers a perspective on the ‘Green Revolution’ that differs from mine,

The “Green Revolution” of the ’60s and ’70s has been credited with helping to feed billions around the world, with fertilizers being one of the key drivers spurring the agricultural boom. But in developing countries, the cost of fertilizer remains relatively high and can limit food production. Now researchers report in the journal ACS Nano a simple way to make a benign, more efficient fertilizer that could contribute to a second food revolution.

A Jan. 25, 2017 American Chemical Society news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

Farmers often use urea, a rich source of nitrogen, as fertilizer. Its flaw, however, is that it breaks down quickly in wet soil and forms ammonia. The ammonia is washed away, creating a major environmental issue as it leads to eutrophication of water ways and ultimately enters the atmosphere as nitrogen dioxide, the main greenhouse gas associated with agriculture. This fast decomposition also limits the amount of nitrogen that can get absorbed by crop roots and requires farmers to apply more fertilizer to boost production. However, in low-income regions where populations continue to grow and the food supply is unstable, the cost of fertilizer can hinder additional applications and cripple crop yields. Nilwala Kottegoda, Veranja Karunaratne, Gehan Amaratunga and colleagues wanted to find a way to slow the breakdown of urea and make one application of fertilizer last longer.

To do this, the researchers developed a simple and scalable method for coating hydroxyapatite (HA) nanoparticles with urea molecules. HA is a mineral found in human and animal tissues and is considered to be environmentally friendly. In water, the hybridization of the HA nanoparticles and urea slowly released nitrogen, 12 times slower than urea by itself. Initial field tests on rice farms showed that the HA-urea nanohybrid lowered the need for fertilizer by one-half. The researchers say their development could help contribute to a new green revolution to help feed the world’s continuously growing population and also improve the environmental sustainability of agriculture.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Urea-Hydroxyapatite Nanohybrids for Slow Release of Nitrogen by Nilwala Kottegoda, Chanaka Sandaruwan, Gayan Priyadarshana, Asitha Siriwardhana, Upendra A. Rathnayake, Danushka Madushanka Berugoda Arachchige, Asurusinghe R. Kumarasinghe, Damayanthi Dahanayake, Veranja Karunaratne, and Gehan A. J. Amaratunga. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.6b07781 Publication Date (Web): January 25, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is open access.

Clay nanosheets and world food security

This is some interesting agricultural research from Australia. From a Jan. 11, 2017 news item on phys.org,

A University of Queensland team has made a discovery that could help conquer the greatest threat to global food security – pests and diseases in plants.

Research leader Professor Neena Mitter said BioClay – an environmentally sustainable alternative to chemicals and pesticides – could be a game-changer for crop protection.

“In agriculture, the need for new control agents grows each year, driven by demand for greater production, the effects of climate change, community and regulatory demands, and toxicity and pesticide resistance,” she said.

“Our disruptive research involves a spray of nano-sized degradable clay used to release double-stranded RNA, that protects plants from specific disease-causing pathogens.”

The research, by scientists from the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI) and UQ’s Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) is published in Nature Plants.

A Jan. 11, 2017 University of Queensland press release, which originated the news item, provides a bit more detail,

Professor Mitter said the technology reduced the use of pesticides without altering the genome of the plants.

“Once BioClay is applied, the plant ‘thinks’ it is being attacked by a disease or pest insect and responds by protecting itself from the targeted pest or disease.

“A single spray of BioClay protects the plant and then degrades, reducing the risk to the environment or human health.”

She said BioClay met consumer demands for sustainable crop protection and residue-free produce.

“The cleaner approach will value-add to the food and agri-business industry, contributing to global food security and to a cleaner, greener image of Queensland.”

AIBN’s Professor Zhiping Xu said BioClay combined nanotechnology and biotechnology.

“It will produce huge benefits for agriculture in the next several decades, and the applications will expand into a much wider field of primary agricultural production,” Professor Xu said.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Clay nanosheets for topical delivery of RNAi for sustained protection against plant viruses by Neena Mitter, Elizabeth A. Worrall, Karl E. Robinson, Peng Li, Ritesh G. Jain, Christelle Taochy, Stephen J. Fletcher, Bernard J. Carroll, G. Q. (Max) Lu & Zhi Ping Xu. Nature Plants 3, Article number: 16207 (2017) doi:10.1038/nplants.2016.207 Published online: 09 January 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

I don’t usually do this but here’s the abstract for the paper,

Topical application of pathogen-specific double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) for virus resistance in plants represents an attractive alternative to transgenic RNA interference (RNAi). However, the instability of naked dsRNA sprayed on plants has been a major challenge towards its practical application. We demonstrate that dsRNA can be loaded on designer, non-toxic, degradable, layered double hydroxide (LDH) clay nanosheets. Once loaded on LDH, the dsRNA does not wash off, shows sustained release and can be detected on sprayed leaves even 30 days after application. We provide evidence for the degradation of LDH, dsRNA uptake in plant cells and silencing of homologous RNA on topical application. Significantly, a single spray of dsRNA loaded on LDH (BioClay) afforded virus protection for at least 20 days when challenged on sprayed and newly emerged unsprayed leaves. This innovation translates nanotechnology developed for delivery of RNAi for human therapeutics to use in crop protection as an environmentally sustainable and easy to adopt topical spray.

It helps a bit but I’m puzzled by the description of BioClay as an alternative to RNAi in the first sentence because the last sentence has: “This innovation translates nanotechnology developed for delivery of RNAi … .” I believe what they’re saying is that LDH clay nanosheets were developed for delivery of RNAi but have now been adapted for delivery of dsRNA. Maybe?

At any rate this paper is behind a paywall.

Nanoremediation to be combined with bioremediation for soil decontamination

There’s a very interesting proposal to combine nanoremediation with bioremediatiion (also known as, phytoremediation) techniques to decontaminate soil. From a June 10, 2016 news item on Nanowerk,

The Basque Institute of Agricultural Research and Development Neiker-Tecnalia is currently exploring a strategy to remedy soils contaminated by organic compounds containing chlorine (organochlorine compounds). The innovative process consists of combining the application of zero-iron nanoparticles with bioremediation techniques. The companies Ekotek and Dinam, the UPV/EHU-University of the Basque Country and Gaiker-IK4 are also participating in this project known as NANOBIOR.

A June 10, 2016 Elhuyar Fundazioa news release, which originated the news item, provides more detail about the proposed integration of the two techniques,

Soils affected by organochlorine compounds are very difficult to decontaminate. Among these organochlorine compounds feature some insecticides mainly used to control insect pests, such as DDT, aldrin, dieldrin, endosulfan, hexachlorocyclohexane, toxaphene, chlordecone, mirex, etc. It is a well-known fact that the use of many of these insecticides is currently banned owing to their environmental impact and the risk they pose for human health.

To degrade organochlorine compounds (organic compounds whose molecules contain chlorine atoms) present in the soil, the organisations participating in the project are proposing a strategy based on the application, initially, of zero-iron nanoparticles [also known as nano zero valent iron] that help to eliminate the chlorine atoms in these compounds. Once these atoms have been eliminated, the bioremediation is carried out (a process in which microorganisms, fungi, plants or enzymes derived from them are used to restore an environment altered by contaminants to its natural state).

The bioremediation process being developed by Neiker-Tecnalia comprises two main strategies: biostimulation and bioaugmentation. The first consists of stimulating the bacteria already present in the soil by adding nutrients, humidity, oxygen, etc. Bioaugmentation is based on applying bacteria with the desired degrading capability to the soil. As part of this process, Neiker-Tecnalia collects samples of soils contaminated by organochlorine compounds and in the laboratory isolates the species of bacteria that display a greater capacity for degrading these contaminants. Once the most interesting strains have been isolated, the quantity of these bacteria are then augmented in the laboratory and the soil needing to be decontaminated is then inoculated with them.

Bank of effective strains to combat organochlorines

The first step for Neiker-Tecnalia is to identify bacterial species capable of degrading organochlorine compounds in order to have available a bank of species of interest for use in bioremediation. This bank will be gathering strains collected in the Basque Country and will allow bacteria that can be used as a decontaminating element of soils to be made available.

The combining of the application of zero-iron nanoparticles and bioremediation constitutes a significant step forward in the matter of soil decontamination; it offers the added advantage of potentially being able to apply them in situ. So this methodology, which is currently in the exploratory phase, could replace other processes such as the excavation of contaminated soils so that they can be contained and/or treated. What is more, the combination of the two techniques makes it possible to reduce the decontamination times, which would take much longer if bioremediation is used on its own.

There is a NANOBIOR webpage here.

For the curious I have two 2012 posts that provide some very nice explanations by Joe Martin, then a Master’s student in the University of Michigan’s Public Health program,: Phyto and nano soil remediation (part 1: phyto/plant) and Phyto and nano soil remediation (part 2: nano).

Biodegradable films from cellulose nanofibrils

A team at Purdue University (Indiana, US) has developed a new process for biodegradable films based on cellulose according to a June 8, 2016 news item on phys.org,

Purdue University researchers have developed tough, flexible, biodegradable films from cellulose, the main component of plant cell walls. The films could be used for products such as food packaging, agricultural groundcovers, bandages and capsules for medicine or bioactive compounds.

Food scientists Srinivas Janaswamy and Qin Xu engineered the cellophane-like material by solubilizing cellulose using zinc chloride, a common inorganic salt, and adding calcium ions to cause the cellulose chains to become tiny fibers known as nanofibrils, greatly increasing the material’s tensile strength. The zinc chloride and calcium ions work together to form a gel network, allowing the researchers to cast the material into a transparent, food-grade film.

A June 7, 2016 Purdue University news release by Natalie van Hoose, which originated the news item, discusses the need for these films and provides a few more technical details about the work (Note: A link has been removed),

“We’re looking for innovative ways to adapt and use cellulose – an inexpensive and widely available material – for a range of food, biomedical and pharmaceutical applications,” said Janaswamy, research assistant professor of food science and principal author of the study. “Though plastics have a wide variety of applications, their detrimental impact on the environment raises a critical need for alternative materials. Cellulose stands out as a viable option, and our process lays a strong foundation for developing new biodegradable plastics.”

Cellulose’s abundance, renewability and ability to biodegrade make it a promising substitute for petroleum-based products. While a variety of products such as paper, cellophane and rayon are made from cellulose, its tightly interlinked structure and insolubility – qualities that give plants strength and protection – make it a challenging material to work with.

Janaswamy and Xu loosened the cellulose network by adding zinc chloride, which helps push cellulose’s closely packed sheets apart, allowing water to penetrate and solubilize it. Adding calcium ions spurs the formation of nanofibrils through strong bonds between the solubilized cellulose sheets. The calcium ions boost the tensile strength of the films by about 250 percent.

The production process preserves the strength and biodegradability of cellulose while rendering it transparent and flexible.

Because the zinc chloride can be recycled to repeat the process, the method offers an environmentally friendly alternative to conventional means of breaking down cellulose, which tend to rely on toxic chemicals and extreme temperatures.

“Products based on this film can have a no-waste lifecycle,” said Xu, research assistant professor of food science and first author of the study. “This process allows us to create a valuable product from natural materials – including low-value or waste materials such as corn stover or wood chips- that can eventually be returned to the Earth.”

The methodology could be adapted to mass-produce cellulose films, the researchers said.

The next step in the project is to find ways of making the cellulose film insoluble to water while maintaining its ability to biodegrade.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

A facile route to prepare cellulose-based films by Qin Xu, Chen Chen, Katelyn Rosswurm, Tianming Yao, Srinivas Janaswamy. Carbohydrate Polymers Volume 149, 20 September 2016, Pages 274–281 doi:10.1016/j.carbpol.2016.04.114

This paper is behind a paywall.

AquAdvantage salmon (genetically modified) approved for consumption in Canada

This is an update of the AquAdvantage salmon story covered in my Dec. 4, 2015 post (scroll down about 40% of the way). At the time, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had just given approval for consumption of the fish. There was speculation there would be a long hard fight over approval in Canada. This does not seem to have been the case, according to a May 10, 2016 news item announcing Health Canada’s on phys.org,

Canada’s health ministry on Thursday [May 19, 2016] approved a type of genetically modified salmon as safe to eat, making it the first transgenic animal destined for Canadian dinner tables.

This comes six months after US authorities gave the green light to sell the fish in American grocery stores.

The decisions by Health Canada and the US Food and Drug Administration follow two decades of controversy over the fish, which is an Atlantic salmon injected with genes from Pacific Chinook salmon and a fish known as the ocean pout to make it grow faster.

The resulting fish, called AquAdvantage Salmon, is made by AquaBounty Technologies in Massachusetts, and can reach adult size in 16 to 18 months instead of 30 months for normal Atlantic salmon.

A May 19, 2016 BIOTECanada news release on businesswire provides more detail about one of the salmon’s Canadian connections,

Canadian technology emanating from Memorial University developed the AquAdvantage salmon by introducing a growth hormone gene from Chinook salmon into the genome of Atlantic salmon. This results in a salmon which grows faster and reaches market size quicker and AquAdvantage salmon is identical to other farmed salmon. The AquAdvantage salmon also received US FDA approval in November 2015. With the growing world population, AquaBounty is one of many biotechnology companies offering safe and sustainable means to enhance the security and supply of food in the world. AquaBounty has improved the productivity of aquaculture through its use of biotechnology and modern breeding technics that have led to the development of AquAdvantage salmon.

“Importantly, today’s approval is a result of a four year science-based regulatory approval process which involved four federal government departments including Agriculture and AgriFood, Canada Food Inspection Agency, Environment and Climate Change, Fisheries and Oceans and Health which demonstrates the rigour and scope of science based regulatory approvals in Canada. Coupled with the report from the [US] National Academy of Sciences today’s [May 19, 2016] approval clearly demonstrates that genetic engineering of food is not only necessary but also extremely safe,” concluded Casey [Andrew Casey, President and CEO BIOTECanada].

There’s another connection, the salmon hatcheries are based in Prince Edward Island.

While BIOTECanada’s Andrew Casey is crowing about this approval, it should be noted that there was a losing court battle with British Columbia’s Living Oceans Society and Nova Scotia’s Ecology Action Centre both challenging the federal government’s approval. They may have lost *the* battle but, as the cliché goes, ‘the war is not over yet’. There’s an Issue about the lack of labeling and there’s always the  possibility that retailers and/or consumers may decide to boycott the fish.

As for BIOTECanada, there’s this description from the news release,

BIOTECanada is the national industry association with more than 230 members reflecting the diverse nature of Canada’s health, industrial and agricultural biotechnology sectors. In addition to providing significant health benefits for Canadians, the biotechnology industry has quickly become an essential part of the transformation of many traditional cornerstones of the Canadian economy including manufacturing, automotive, energy, aerospace and forestry industries. Biotechnology in all of its applications from health, agriculture and industrial is offering solutions for the collective population.

You can find the BIOTECanada website here.

Personally, I’m a bit ambivalent about it all. I understand the necessity for changing our food production processes but I do think more attention should be paid to consumers’ concerns and that organizations such as BIOTECanada could do a better job of communicating.

*’the’ added on Aug. 4, 2016.

Nanoparticles for sustainable ways to grow crops

An April 29, 2016 news item on Nanowerk celebrates research into food production,

Scientists are working diligently to prepare for the expected increase in global population — and therefore an increased need for food production— in the coming decades. A team of engineers at Washington University in St. Louis has found a sustainable way to boost the growth of a protein-rich bean by improving the way it absorbs much-needed nutrients.

Ramesh Raliya, a research scientist, and Pratim Biswas, the Lucy & Stanley Lopata Professor and chair of the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering, both in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, discovered a way to reduce the use of fertilizer made from rock phosphorus and still see improvements in the growth of food crops by using zinc oxide nanoparticles.

The food under investigation is the mung bean,

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis hope that nanoparticle technology can help reduce the need for fertilizer, creating a more sustainable way to grow crops such as mung beans. Courtesy: Washington University in St. Louis

Researchers at Washington University in St. Louis hope that nanoparticle technology can help reduce the need for fertilizer, creating a more sustainable way to grow crops such as mung beans. Courtesy: Washington University in St. Louis

An April 28, 2016 Washington University in St. Louis  news release (also on EurekAlert) by Beth Miller, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

The research was published April 7 [2016] in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. Raliya said this is the first study to show how to mobilize native phosphorus in the soil using zinc oxide nanoparticles over the life cycle of the plant, from seed to harvest.

Food crops need phosphorus to grow, and farmers are using more and more phosphorus-based fertilizer as they increase crops to feed a growing world population. However, the plants can only use about 42 percent of the phosphorus applied to the soil, so the rest runs off into the water streams, where it grows algae that pollutes our water sources. In addition, nearly 82 percent of the world’s phosphorus is used as fertilizer, but it is a limited supply, Raliya says.

“If farmers use the same amount of phosphorus as they’re using now, the world’s supply will be depleted in about 80 years,” Raliya said. “Now is the time for the world to learn how to use phosphorus in a more sustainable manner.”

Raliya and his collaborators, including Jagadish Chandra Tarafdar at the Central Arid Zone Research Institute in Jodhpur, India, created zinc oxide nanoparticles from a fungus around the plant’s root that helps the plant mobilize and take up the nutrients in the soil. Zinc also is an essential nutrient for plants because it interacts with three enzymes that mobilize the complex form of phosphorus in the soil into a form that plants can absorb.

“Due to climate change, the daily temperature and rainfall amounts have changed,” Raliya said. “When they changed, the microflora in the soil are also changed, and once those are depleted, the soil phosphorus can’t mobilize the phosphorus, so the farmer applies more. Our goal is to increase the activity of the enzymes by several-fold, so we can mobilize the native phosphorus several-fold.”

When Raliya and the team applied the zinc nanoparticles to the leaves of the mung bean plant, it increased the uptake of the phosphorus by nearly 11 percent and the activity of the three enzymes by 84 percent to 108 percent. That leads to a lesser need to add phosphorus on the soil, Raliya said.

“When the enzyme activity increases, you don’t need to apply the external phosphorus, because it’s already in the soil, but not in an available form for the plant to uptake,” he said. “When we apply these nanoparticles, it mobilizes the complex form of phosphorus to an available form.”

The mung bean is a legume grown mainly in China, southeast Asia and India, where 60 percent of the population is vegetarian and relies on plant-based protein sources. The bean is adaptable to a variety of climate conditions and is very affordable for people to grow.

Raliya said 45 percent of the worldwide phosphorus use for agriculture takes place in India and China. Much of the phosphorus supply in developing countries is imported from the United States and Morocco-based rock phosphate mines.

“We hope that this method of using zinc oxide nanoparticles can be deployed in developing countries where farmers are using a lot of phosphorus,” Raliya said.

“These countries are dependent on the U.S. to export phosphorus to them, but in the future, the U.S. may have to help supply food, as well. If this crop can grow in a more sustainable manner, it will be helpful for everyone.”

“This is a broader effort under way at the nexus of food, energy and water,” Biswas said. “Nanoparticle technology enabled by aerosol science helps develop innovative solutions to address this global challenge problem that we face today.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

Enhancing the Mobilization of Native Phosphorus in the Mung Bean Rhizosphere Using ZnO Nanoparticles Synthesized by Soil Fungi by Ramesh Raliya, Jagadish Chandra Tarafdar, and Pratim Biswas. J. Agric. Food Chem., 2016, 64 (16), pp 3111–3118 DOI: 10.1021/acs.jafc.5b05224 Publication Date (Web): April 07, 2016

Copyright © 2016 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

$5.2M in nanotechnology grants from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA)

A March 30, 2016 news item on Nanowerk announces the 2016 nanotechnology grants from the US Dept. of Agriculture (USDA),

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today [March 30, 2016] announced an investment of more than $5.2 million to support nanotechnology research at 11 universities. The universities will research ways nanotechnology can be used to improve food safety, enhance renewable fuels, increase crop yields, manage agricultural pests, and more. The awards were made through the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the nation’s premier competitive, peer-reviewed grants program for fundamental and applied agricultural sciences.

A March 30, 2016 USDA news release provides more detail,

“In the seven years since the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative was established, the program has led to true innovations and ground-breaking discoveries in agriculture to combat childhood obesity, improve and sustain rural economic growth, address water availability issues, increase food production, find new sources of energy, mitigate the impacts of climate variability and enhance resiliency of our food systems, and ensure food safety. Nanoscale science, engineering, and technology are key pieces of our investment in innovation to ensure an adequate and safe food supply for a growing global population,” said Vilsack. “The President’s 2017 Budget calls for full funding of the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative so that USDA can continue to support important projects like these.”

Universities receiving funding include Auburn University in Auburn, Ala.; Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in New Haven, Conn.; University of Central Florida in Orlando, Fla; University of Georgia in Athens, Ga.; Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa; University of Massachusetts in Amherst, Mass.; Mississippi State University in Starkville, Miss.; Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo.; Clemson University in Clemson, S.C.; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va.; and University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wis.

With this funding, Auburn University proposes to improve pathogen monitoring throughout the food supply chain by creating a user-friendly system that can detect multiple foodborne pathogens simultaneously, accurately, cost effectively, and rapidly. Mississippi State University will research ways nanochitosan can be used as a combined fire-retardant and antifungal wood treatment that is also environmentally safe. Experts in nanotechnology, molecular biology, vaccines and poultry diseases at the University of Wisconsin will work to develop nanoparticle-based poultry vaccines to prevent emerging poultry infections. USDA has a full list of projects and longer descriptions available online.

Past projects include a University of Georgia project developing a bio-nanocomposites-based, disease-specific, electrochemical sensors for detecting fungal pathogen induced volatiles in selected crops; and a University of Massachusetts project creating a platform for pathogen detection in foods that is superior to the current detection method in terms of analytical time, sensitivity, and accuracy using a novel, label-free, surface-enhanced Raman scattering (SERS) mapping technique.

The purpose of AFRI is to support research, education, and extension work by awarding grants that address key problems of national, regional, and multi-state importance in sustaining all components of food and agriculture. AFRI is the flagship competitive grant program administered by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture [NIFA]. Established under the 2008 Farm Bill, AFRI supports work in six priority areas: plant health and production and plant products; animal health and production and animal products; food safety, nutrition and health; bioenergy, natural resources and environment; agriculture systems and technology; and agriculture economics and rural communities. Since AFRI’s creation, NIFA has awarded more than $89 million to solve challenges related to plant health and production; $22 million of this has been dedicated to nanotechnology research. The President’s 2017 budget request proposes to fully fund AFRI for $700 million; this amount is the full funding level authorized by Congress when it established AFRI in the 2008 Farm Bill.

Each day, the work of USDA scientists and researchers touches the lives of all Americans: from the farm field to the kitchen table and from the air we breathe to the energy that powers our country. USDA science is on the cutting edge, helping to protect, secure, and improve our food, agricultural and natural resources systems. USDA research develops and transfers solutions to agricultural problems, supporting America’s farmers and ranchers in their work to produce a safe and abundant food supply for more than 100 years. This work has helped feed the nation and sustain an agricultural trade surplus since the 1960s. Since 2009, USDA has invested $4.32 billion in research and development grants. Studies have shown that every dollar invested in agricultural research now returns over $20 to our economy.

Since 2009, NIFA has invested in and advanced innovative and transformative initiatives to solve societal challenges and ensure the long-term viability of agriculture. NIFA’s integrated research, education, and extension programs, supporting the best and brightest scientists and extension personnel, have resulted in user-inspired, groundbreaking discoveries that are combating childhood obesity, improving and sustaining rural economic growth, addressing water availability issues, increasing food production, finding new sources of energy, mitigating climate variability, and ensuring food safety.

Mega science (e.g., a Large Hadron Collider) for agriculture

They are not talking about smashing plants together at high speeds when they suggest creating a CERN LHC (European Particle Physics Laboratory Large Hadron Collider) for agricultural sciences. Rather, three scientists have published a discussion paper about enabling large scale collaborations amongst agricultural scientists in Europe, according to a Jan. 5, 2016 news item on phys.org,

The Large Hadron Collider, a.k.a. CERN, found success in a simple idea: Invest in a laboratory that no one institution could sustain on their own and then make it accessible for physicists around the world. Astronomers have done the same with telescopes, while neuroscientists are collaborating to build brain imaging observatories. Now, in Trends in Plant Science on January 5 [2016], agricultural researchers present their vision for how a similar idea could work for them.

Rather than a single laboratory, the authors want to open a network of research stations across Europe—from a field in Scotland to an outpost in Sicily. Not only would this provide investigators with easy access to a range of different soil properties, temperatures, and atmospheric conditions to study plant/crop growth, it would allow more expensive equipment (for example, open-field installations to create artificial levels of carbon dioxide) to be a shared resource.

A Jan. 5, 2016 Cell Press news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, expands on the theme,

“Present field research facilities are aimed at making regional agriculture prosperous,” says co-author Hartmut Stützel of Leibniz Universität Hannover in Germany. “To us, it is obvious that the ‘challenges’ of the 21st century–productivity increase, climate change, and environmental sustainability–will require more advanced research infrastructures covering a wider range of environments.”

Stützel and colleagues, including Nicolas Brüggemann of Forschungszentrum Jülich in Germany and Dirk Inzé of VIB and Ghent University in Belgium, are just at the beginning of the process of creating their network, dubbed ECOFE (European Consortium for Open Field Experimentation). The idea was born last February at a meeting of Science Europe and goes back to discussions within a German Research Foundation working group starting four years ago. Now, they are approaching European ministries to explore the possibilities for ECOFE’s creation.

In addition to finding financial and political investment, ECOFE’s success will hinge on whether scientists at the various institutional research stations will be able to sacrifice a bit of their autonomy to focus on targeted research projects, Stützel says. He likens the network to a car sharing service, in which researchers will be giving up the autonomy and control of their own laboratories to have access to facilities in different cities. If ECOFE catches on, thousands of scientists could be using the network to work together on a range of “big picture” agricultural problems.

“It will be a rather new paradigm for many traditional scientists, but I think the communities are ready to accept this challenge and understand that research in the 21st century requires these types of infrastructures,” Stützel say. “We must now try to make political decision makers aware that a speedy implementation of a network for open field experimentation is fundamental for future agricultural research.”

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper,

The Future of Field Trials in Europe: Establishing a Network Beyond Boundaries by Hartmut Stützel, Nicolas Brüggemann, Dirk Inzé. Publication stage: In Press Corrected Proof DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.tplants.2015.12.003 Published Online: January 05, 2016

This paper appears to be open access.