Harnessing the Power of Perennial Plants for Sustainable Agriculture

“I was a child of the late 80s and early 90s, so I was playing outside year-round,” says Matthew J. ‘MJ’ Rubin, PhD, Research Scientist in Dr. Allison Miller’s lab, with a laugh. Growing up in central Wisconsin, Matthew was fascinated by the differences across seasons- and in Wisconsin those differences can be extreme. He can see now how his childhood interests have gone on to influence his career, as he explores research questions such as, ‘How do plants perceive seasonal changes and how do plants survive across such a wide range of environmental conditions?’ 

Matthew’s research is focused on perennial plants, or “long-lived” plants, seeking to increase our understanding of these plants across their lifetime. Perennial plants offer many benefits to agriculture and our environment. They develop deep root systems that fix carbon, reduce water needs, and help restore soil health. When used for agriculture, perennials can provide multiple harvests from the same plant, offering a more sustainable solution for future agricultural systems.

Matthew Rubin (left) at the Miller Lab Perennial Common Garden at the Shaw Nature Reserve with members of the Miller Lab. At the Shaw Nature Reserve, the Miller Lab grows different perennial crop candidate species to evaluate performance in the field.

Accelerating the Domestication Pipeline

Matthew and his colleagues in the Miller Lab are interested in using perennial plants for commercial agriculture food crops, which would provide many benefits to farmers and the environment. The challenge is that successfully and rapidly domesticating promising perennial crops often relies on genetic screening, an expensive and time-consuming process, especially for underdeveloped species that lack genomic resources. 

Today, Matthew is co-leading a research project with Allison Miller, funded by a FFAR Seeding Solutions grant, that aims to accelerate the domestication of perennial crops for use in agriculture. Through the FFAR grant, Matthew, Allison, and collaborators at The Land Institute, Kansas State University and INIFAP are using the physical traits of seeds and seedlings to predict performance in the field (including yield and disease resistance). The research team is focused on three perennial species: Thinopyrum intermedium (Intermediate wheatgrass; perennial grain), Onobrychis viciifolia (sainfoin; perennial legume), and Silphium integrifolium (rosinweed; perennial oilseed). “We’re focusing on diverse species in hopes that we can build models that can be applied to other new perennial crop candidates,” says Matthew. “The goal is to create tools so it becomes easier and less time-consuming to move perennials through the domestication pipeline.”

Matthew Rubin (left) and Emelyn Piotter (right) sampling leaves to be imaged on the CropReporter at the Danforth Center to investigate spectral traits as part of the FFAR project.

This is the first time that Matthew has been a co-Principal Investigator on a large research project. “It’s been really exciting working on this project from the ground up,” explains Matthew. “This opportunity has allowed me to be a part of the process from initial proposal development all the way through research.” 

Matthew with a ditch digger during the prep of the Miller Lab Perennial Common Garden at the Shaw Nature Reserve.

Mentoring The Next Generation of Plant Scientists

As a first-generation college graduate, scientific mentors have played an important role in his career. “I hadn’t met anyone with a PhD until I went to college,” explains Matthew. As a sophomore, he knocked on the door of a faculty member who focused on plant genetics. She gave him a copy of Introduction to Quantitative Genetics by Falconer and Mackay and he never looked back. “I have been really fortunate to have had four fantastic scientific mentors: Dr. Lisa Dorn (University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh), Dr. Cynthia Weinig (University of Wyoming), Dr. Jannice Friedman (Syracuse University, now at Queen’s University), and Dr. Allison Miller. They have all shaped the way I think about science.”

Now a mentor himself, Matthew finds it to be one of the most rewarding parts of his research. “In the first six months of the FFAR project, I have interacted with over 30 collaborators” he explains. “I’m proud to be able to provide opportunities to early-career scientists at all levels and help inspire the next generation of scientists.”