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PNNL's research today may help feed the planet tomorrow

Published in the Tri-City Herald January 28, 2018, authored by Lab Director Steven Ashby

PNNL's research today may help feed the planet tomorrow

January 28, 2018
Source: Tri-City Herald, reposted with permission from Tri-City Herald

  • Tripogon

    PNNL scientists are collaborating with researchers from the Center for Tropical Crops and Biocommodities at Queensland University of Technology in Australia to better understand the genes and regulatory systems in "resurrection" grass that allow it to cope under severe stress. They are studying Tripogon, which is native to Australia as well as areas in the United States with dry, nutrient-poor soils, including Texas and Arizona. These grasses can quickly recover after losing as much as 90 percent of their moisture. Not only does new tissue develop, but the dry leaves and shoots are actually revived when the plant finally does receive water.Photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

  • PNNL researchers, including student interns

    PNNL researchers, including student interns, developed a controlled-release solid-nitride fertilizer that could significantly improve fertilizer-use efficiency and significantly decrease the greenhouse gas footprint of nitrogen fertilizers. Pictured here are (from left) Jim Amonette, Justin Huynh, Pepa Matyas, Ethan Ramos, Chris Thompson and Grant Kroll, who were involved in developing the fertilizer and successfully demonstrating its effectiveness in a greenhouse test at Washington State University Tri-Cities.Photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

  • Janet Jansson

    PNNL scientist Janet Jansson is one of 13 scientists on a National Academies executive committee tasked with developing and assembling Breakthroughs 2030: A Strategy for Food and Agricultural Research. The report, which also includes insights from other PNNL researchers, will outline an ambitious 10-year strategy for food and agricultural research in the United States and is expected to be published later this year. Photo courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory


January is a time for New Year's resolutions, and many of us might be trying to eat a little healthier and cut back on certain foods.

While we might be focused on what we are eating, how often do we think about where our food comes from or the challenges that farmers face in growing it? How is agriculture impacted by climate change, for instance, if there are longer periods of drought? How do land-use policies affect food production, say, when cropland is lost to other purposes?

At the Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, researchers seek to answer these and other questions related to the environmental impacts of agriculture, the role of microbes and how to optimize food production.

For example, PNNL scientists are looking at how microbes work together in communities to do things that affect crops, such as process carbon in soil. Some of our scientists participated in a recent National Academies meeting that brought together experts from many disciplines to identify the biggest challenges, opportunities and knowledge gaps in food and agricultural research. Their insights helped shape a research agenda and national strategy that will be published in the coming months.

In another project that involves Australian collaborators from Queensland University of Technology, researchers are applying their expertise in plant genomics (the study of an organism's complete set of genes) and systems microbiology to better understand the fundamental mechanisms that help plants withstand extreme drought conditions. They are studying a "resurrection" grass that quickly springs back to life even after its leaves and shoots get dry and crispy during times of very little water.

Because the grass is a close relative of cereals, rice, sorghum and maize, the work may eventually lead to more drought-resistant food crops.

Speaking of grains, PNNL scientists have figured out how to engineer and cultivate a new variety of rice that not only provides a richer food source, but emits nearly no methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. Today, rice paddies account for about 17 percent of annual methane emissions worldwide. By adding a single gene from barley to rice, our scientists were able to inhibit the production of methane by the microbes living in the soil as the rice grows.

Closer to home, at a Washington State University Tri-Cities greenhouse, PNNL researchers successfully demonstrated a promising fertilizer they developed that may allow farms to achieve the same yields while using less fertilizer and helping the environment. The controlled-release, solid-nitride fertilizer is made from coal fly ash by a high-temperature, fluidized-bed process and slowly releases nutrients to plants rather than dissolving immediately in soil. That means more goes to the crop and less remains in the ground, where it can leach into waterways or get converted to nitrous oxide, a potent greenhouse gas 300 times worse than carbon dioxide.

Finally, we are improving land-use models that assess how changes in the environment might affect crop yields. We are incorporating more realistic processes into the models for simulating crop growth by taking into account common farming practices. For example, we are studying changes farmers may make in what crops they plant, as well as when and how they are irrigated and fertilized. This research is expected to help policy makers — and farmers — make better decisions.

As January comes to a close, some of us are already struggling to stick with our New Year's resolutions. At PNNL, however, our researchers remain committed to providing the science and technology that may lead to innovative solutions for tomorrow's agriculture. Now that's food for thought.

Steven Ashby, director of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, writes this column monthly. His other columns and opinion pieces are available here.

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