Meet the Scientists Renewing the Environment Through Plant Science
At the Danforth Center, our mission is to improve the human condition through plant science. Utilizing plant science to preserve and renew the environment is a key tenant of that mission. Each year, we see our work become more and more critical to the future of the planet and the people that inhabit it.
The temperature near Earth’s surface is continuing to get warmer: “February 2020 marked the warm end to one of the most unusually warm months and winters on record for the globe.”1 This is due, in part, to fossil fuels, like coal and oil, that are burned for energy. These fossil fuels contain carbon that plants pull out of the atmosphere through photosynthesis over the span of many millions of years - yet we are returning that carbon to the atmosphere in just a few hundred years.2 To learn more about the challenges we face when it comes to climate change, visit climate.gov.
The good news? Many of our Principal Investigators are studying how plant science can be applied to mitigate the effects of climate change and make the agriculture industry more sustainable.
Meet some of our principal investigators that are pursuing ways to preserve our environment by harnessing the power of plants:
While much of our farmland in the U.S. is dedicated to annual crops, Allison Miller, PhD and her lab are focusing on perennial plants, or “long-lived crops” as a potential alternative. Perennial crops are more sustainable: they are alive year-round and can be harvested multiple times within one lifetime. Because perennials live for many years, they have a deep root structure that can remove more carbon from the environment, combat soil erosion, and enrich soil nutrients.
“For years, humans have grown crops to serve human needs, often at the expense of the environment. It’s time we developed crops that can benefit the planet, as well as humans,” says Allison.
With the Miller Lab’s research, our agriculture system could potentially shift to growing more perennial crops that produce food AND help heal the planet. Currently, Allison and her team are currently trialing 12 herbaceous perennial species as candidates for crop development.
Petroleum is a non-renewable resource that is vital to our existence and central to the manufacturing of fuel for vehicles, and plastics and polymers that are ubiquitous in daily life. To decrease our dependence on this finite resource, Doug Allen, PhD and his lab are exploring how to increase the levels of vegetable oil in plant tissues.
“My lab is interested in how to capitalize on the versatility of plants to produce what we need most efficiently for the good of the planet,” says Doug.
In a world with a growing population and new environmental challenges, research pursued in Doug’s lab is increasingly critical to improving plant productivity. Currently, his lab has studies in soybean but also other oilseeds including canola and camelina, and focuses on photosynthesis in grasses, legumes, oilseeds, and algae.
Ru Zhang, PhD and her team study how land plants and green algae in order to understand how photosynthetic cells respond to high temperatures. Her lab wants to understand how high temperatures affect photosynthesis, and which components of the photosynthetic process are most sensitive to it. If the Ru lab’s research is successful, it would be possible to improve crops and algae to have a greater yield potential even in a warming climate.
“Climate change is increasing the frequency and duration of damaging heat to most crops. This will affect plant growth and development, including photosynthesis, ultimately reducing crop yield. We need to make crops more adaptable and heat tolerant in order to feed people,” says Ru.
With a growing population and a changing climate, Ru’s work has never been more important than it is today.
While our planet faces immense challenges, researchers like Allison, Doug, Ivan, and Ru are making it their mission to create a better future.