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News Release 19-010

New NSF awards target breakthrough technologies to enhance food security

Research aimed at advancing functional genomics and crop breeding

Fluorescent proteins expressed in Arabidopsis pollen

Fluorescent proteins expressed in Arabidopsis pollen

July 23, 2019

Imagine crops that required less water because a "wearable sensor" could "grow" along with a plant and provide more accurate and continuous readings of its hydration. Such a sensor would allow scientists to address fundamental questions about how water is used in a plant and could lead to the development of plants that are more water efficient. Or what about learning what makes some plants grow well even under environmental stress? Understanding how such high priority traits are inherited and genetically modified could lead to corn plants that are more environmentally resilient.

Such cutting-edge responses to fundamental questions will result from a new collaboration among the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and the United Kingdom Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Basic discoveries leading to translatable outcomes are the key to this collaborative effort.

With more than 7½ billion people on the planet, the agriculture enterprise is looking for ways to combat the impact of drought, flood, pests and disease, and that is at the root of the "high-risk, high-reward" fundamental research in these new Breakthrough Technologies awards.

"This competition called for scientists and engineers to collaborate and build new, effective solutions to improve crop systems by harnessing all available technologies," said Anne Sylvester, the program director who oversaw NSF's share of approximately $3 million in funding for Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research to Develop Breakthrough Ideas and Enabling Technologies to Advance Crop Breeding and Functional Genomics.

"Environmental change, population disruption and agricultural needs are profound, global concerns. We expect this research to yield technology breakthroughs that accelerate improvements in how crops respond to sudden environmental stress, unexpected pathogen invasion or other instances where there's critical need," Sylvester added.

New technologies can also help discover how crop systems can preserve and better mobilize water and nutrient resources (for example, high-tech plant wearable sensors), as well as identify how to circumvent genetic constraints to develop new crop varieties. Just as technology has transformed the way people interact and work, these high-risk/high-reward projects are expected to deliver technologies used in functional studies with the potential to produce resilient, efficient and more productive crop systems.

"UKRI's Fund for International Collaboration has enabled us to strengthen our relationship with the U.S.," said Melanie Welham, executive chair of BBSRC. "Transnational funding calls such as this allow BBSRC not only to foster scientific excellence but also to help tackle global challenges like food security and reduce environmental impacts from agriculture."

Collectively, the three funding agencies are backing 20 projects with approximately $10 million to help researchers potentially advance technology that brings more security to crop agriculture of the future. Projects with NSF funding include:

Controlling Meiotic recombination in crops by manipulating DNA methylation
Wojciech Pawlowski, Cornell University
*Chris Franklin & Eugenio Sanchez Moran, University of Birmingham, UK

A system for the production of haploid inducer lines and cytoplasmic male sterile doubled haploids for efficient hybrid production
Patrick Krysan, University of Wisconsin-Madison
*Stephen Jackson, University of Warwick, UK

Mitotic recombination between homologous chromosomes
Anne Britt, University of California-Davis

Improving crop yield prediction by integrating machine learning with process-based crop models
Lizhi Wang, Iowa State University

Plant genome editing and engineering via novel nanotechnology-based systems
Heidi Kaeppler, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Clean genome editing through the use of nonintegrating T-DNA technology
Stanton Gelvin, Purdue University
*Christopher West, University of Leeds, UK

Harnessing the power of cellular memory to enhance the breeding potential of crops
Robert Schmitz, University of Georgia
*Jose Gutierrez-Marcos, University of Warwick, UK

A wearable plant sensor for real-time monitoring of sap flow and stem diameter to accelerate breeding for water use efficiency
James Schnable, University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Liang Dong, Iowa State University

Cell type-specific profiling 2.0: Capturing subpopulations of cells undergoing a response
Roger Deal, Emory University

Investigating genetic, epigenetic and environmental control of meiotic recombination using fluorescent crossover reporters in tomato
Gregory Copenhaver, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
*Ian Henderson, University of Cambridge, UK

* Funding provided by UK Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council


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The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, its budget is $8.1 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

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