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Crop biology

What is crop biology?

Root structureHave you ever studied human biology? Tried to understand how muscles work during your exercise routine? Wondered how children grow? Human physiologists study the workings of the human body. Similarly, crop physiologists research how plants grow and function.

Some crop physiologists study individual plant cells. Others specialize in specific plant parts like leaves, stems, or roots. And yet others study the interactions of plants in their environments. Crop physiologists work to gain knowledge about what controls plant growth and how plants respond to their changing environment.

Plants make life on earth possible because they convert solar energy into chemical energy we can use. That process is photosynthesis. We all depend on plant products for food, fiber, medicines, and a wide array of natural chemicals. How do they grow? What limitations do they face? Which plants are more efficient? Crop physiologists fill the knowledge gap between processes controlling growth and seed development and the targeted production of economically-valuable plant products.

Current challenges

Climate change. Our major crop plants remain vulnerable to drought. We understand many of the mechanisms involved and have been breeding for plants that are more drought-tolerant for decades. But the climate is changing. Weather patterns are becoming more variable. At the same time, demands for food, fiber, and energy production continue to rise. Crop scientists must find plants that can help meet these demands.

Soybeans showing varied maturity ratesMore efficient water and nutrient use. Our major crop plants use 250 to 530 gallons of water for every two pounds of grain they produce. (That’s about 20 laundry machine loads worth of water!) By understanding how plants use water, we may be able to breed plants that are more efficient. Plants also get most of their nutrients from the soil. How their root systems interact with the soil environment may hold a key to breeding plants that are more efficient in nutrient use.

Lack of new cropland. The amount of land available for growing food and fiber is decreasing as the human population increases. We have to use the farmland we have more efficiently. Crop physiologists are working to understand why some plants are more efficient, producing more per acre. By growing the crops that are the most efficient at using water, nutrients, and the sun’s energy, we can harvest more—and harvest crops that are more nutritious.   

Soil biology. Knowledge of plant interactions with favorable soil microorganisms is very limited. Soil microbes can help plants get nutrients, help defend against diseases, and even create growth-promoting compounds. Studying how this happens may lead to discovering crop plants that work more closely with the microbes in the soil. This can reduce the level of fertilizers and pesticides farmers need to apply while still increasing yields.

What advances have we seen in crop biology?

Corn in waterlogged fieldDiscoveries by crop physiologists have had major impacts on our knowledge of plant life, their uses, and agricultural practices. Here are a few that are particularly noteworthy:

  • How plants receive the sun’s rays and their ability to use it for greater grain yield
  • Basic plant mechanisms that increase tolerance to drought and flooding
  • Plant hormones and how they work
  • How a plant’s flowering time frame is changed by temperature and daylight (more here)
  • How plants use carbon and nitrogen
  • How plants transport water and other nutrients within them
  • How plants “decide” which parts need most growth
  • How the environment changes seeds and other plant products
  • How plants and microbes interact

Future opportunities

Availability and use of large datasets. Scientists are now able to collect incredible amounts of data about crops and their interactions with the environment. We can collect data about the activity of DNA and how it affects plants at the cellular, organ, plant, community, and environmental levels!  Our challenge now is how best to combine the pertinent data to create new and practical solutions. Creative data analysis will help the discovery of new plant traits and approaches to plant improvement.  

Integrative crop modeling. Crop scientists are looking at ways to incorporate old knowledge with the new data we have today. The use of mathematical and computer modeling—like building an avatar world—will help us make these logical connections to improve our crops. Analysis of large, complex sets of information requires strong scientific and mathematical skills. Combining past knowledge with new information, however, is an excellent way to foster breakthroughs in crop science.

Measurements in bean fieldPhysiological phenotyping. New high-tech machines and sensors can determine the phenotype, or physical characteristics, of plants in seconds – as opposed to many hours or even days. Highly-desired traits can be quickly identified in thousands of plants, automatically. This can point to the elite germplasm for the next drought- or disease-resistant plant. (Read more about it here.)

Sustainable crop intensification. Plants use various resources to grow: water, nutrients, and radiation from the sun. Some plants are more efficient than others at using these resources. By understanding why and how this happens, crop physiologists hope to increase our food production with more limited resources. Crop physiologists will need to work with other research areas to achieve this goal.

Genomic tools for crop improvement.  New techniques and tools allow plant physiologists and breeders to identify specific genes and traits in a plant. This allows scientists to target those genes that increase plant growth and productivity.   

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