Increasing droughts and rising temperatures challenge society’s ability to produce plentiful plants in a land- and water-scarce environment. Yet today’s economies are increasingly hungry for sources of power, and see plants as an effective, sustainable source of biomass for fuel.
Improving crop yields
At PNNL, scientists explore ways to meet the increasing demand for plant biomass without negative impacts on the environment, economies, or food production. Their target is to increase crop productivity by 50 to 85 percent in the coming decades without expanding agricultural land area.
Researchers in PNNL’s Plant Science Program work to optimize harvestable plant biomass for fuels and chemicals and look at the use of below-ground carbon pools as a way of improving soil health and developing long-term carbon storage. To get there, they need to know more about adjusting plant metabolism and plant-microbe interactions.
Inside the phytotron
At the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory (EMSL), a Department of Energy scientific user facility located on the PNNL campus, scientists conduct experiments in a controlled research greenhouse called a phytotron. They characterize and model plant phenotypes at the molecular to organismal scale. They also characterize the structure and function of the rhizosphere and phyllosphere microbiome, including soil properties and plant-microbe interactions.
PNNL is developing a new root phenotyping pipeline with 3D modeling capabilities to study how different components of the root system evolve—how they branch and angle, develop during plant growth, and respond to the environmental changes. This new capability supplements traditional rhizoboxes, rhizotrons, and gel-based systems used to grow, monitor, and analyze plants and their developing roots.
Plant science in action
The plant science work at PNNL is part of an ongoing effort called Predicting Ecosystem Resilience through Multiscale and Integrative Science, or PREMIS. Managed by DOE’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research, PREMIS explores carbon uptake in ecosystems of increasing complexity, starting with single plants. From laboratory and field experiments to computational models, PNNL researchers examine how genomic and environmental variables inform traits and responses at different scales, from molecules, to plants, to plant ecosystems.
PREMIS builds on a growing list of notable PNNL plant research efforts, including these recent examples:
- Climate-friendly rice. PNNL led the development of a genetically modified rice plant that emits almost no methane and increases the starch level and yield. Popular Science recognized this breakthrough as a top science development and winner of the grand prize in the engineering category.
- Advanced sorghum phenomics. Researchers planted and harvested 600 types of sorghum plants in California’s Central Valley, then used observations and molecular analysis to compare plant properties and their ability to thrive in conditions of drought and high salinity.
- Plants in space. In May 2018, a handful of seeds rocketed to the International Space Station as part of an experiment to understand how plants grow in zero-gravity conditions. Scientists will study the harvested plants and compare them to counterparts being grown in identical conditions—except for gravity—back on Earth.