Environments by Design: Developing New Tools for the Quantitative Investigations of Networks of Plants
Iowa State University
Materials Science & Engineering
The extraordinary challenge of providing food for the growing human population will require new insights in two areas of biochemical knowledge. (i) The interaction of roots with soil determines the acquisition of nutrients and the development of the root system. The structure of the root system is essential for the productivity of the plant and its survival under stress. (ii) The interaction of the plant with other organisms is essential for mobilizing and metabolizing nutrients in soil. Synergism between plants and other organisms (e.g., other plants) could offset the need for cheap fertilizers and enable farming of marginal soils in a truly sustainable manner.
This chemistry happens in a heterogeneous, complex, and dynamic biomaterial, soil, and involves the less understood part of the plant, the root system. Furthermore, this chemistry is not the sum of individual reactions, but a dynamic network of chemical reactions occurring in an evolving environment. There is an urgent need for new, simple, and effective tools that will allow scientists across disciplinary boundaries to converge to this challenge. The available growth environments monitor small numbers of plants (typically 2-3), are not easily scalable to networks of hundreds of plants, they provide limited control over the structural and chemical conditions, and/or they are incompatible with the large seeds of many crops and plants as well as plant growth over longer timescales.
Our work is developing tools for the generation of complex environments for plants and other organisms. Specifically we are developing self-contained environments that enable (i) the control of the fundamental physico-chemical parameters of the plant environment (relative humidity, nutrient concentrations, water availability distribution) and (ii) the controlled root-level connectivity of plants.