In the race to develop new technologies and methods to support sustainable agriculture and imperiled ecosystems, scientists hope to bring an important voice to the conversation from the plants themselves.

A $25 million grant from the National Science Foundation will allow researchers from the University of Arizona, Cornell University, the Boyce Thompson Institute and the University of Illinois to do that through the newly-established Center for Research on Programmable Plant Systems.

CROPPS will grow the emerging field of digital biology and develop new methods to observe, record and control plant responses to their environment. The information these systems gather will be shared via networked, online databases — creating an “Internet of Living Things” — to help researchers support plant systems in a changing global climate.

“Plants are sending us signals, and they’re telling us things,” said Rebecca Mosher, the lead investigator on the project at UArizona and an associate professor in the School of Plant Sciences. “Can we better interpret those signals to understand what they are doing and what they need?”

Remote sensing technologies have been used in agriculture since the 1950s. Drones, sensor probes and advanced imaging can help farmers identify plots in their fields in need of more nutrients or water and even detect pathogens threatening crops. The Internet of Living Things would harness existing technology and develop new methods of sensing plants’ needs on a larger biological scale.

“Imagine robots that can swim in the soil to look at the roots or drone technology that can capture hyper-spectral imaging — those wavelengths that we can’t see,” Mosher said.

The information gathered can help researchers not only better understand how plants interact with their environment but develop new techniques for breeding crops to meet the challenges of a changing global climate.

“This project represents a fundamental shift in how biologists study plants,” said Duke Pauli, an assistant professor in the School of Plant Sciences. “For the first time, we will be able to communicate with plants, enabling us to explore how they respond to dynamic environments in which they did not evolve and potentially breed new plants for our changing environment.”

Waterhemp’s detox mechanism

Cementing waterhemp’s reputation as a hard-to-kill weed in corn and soybean production systems, University of Illinois researchers have documented the weed deviating from standard detoxification strategies to resist an herbicide that has never been commercialized.

Syncarpic acid-3 (SA3) is the great-great-grandfather of the HPPD-inhibiting herbicide Callisto. SA3 never has been used in corn because it kills the crop along with the weeds. Corn can tolerate Callisto and other herbicides because it has a robust detoxification system to neutralize and cordon off the harmful chemical, but corn’s neutralizing systems don’t work on SA3.

Weeds like waterhemp typically evolve detoxification systems that mimic corn’s. That’s why it’s especially surprising that HPPD-resistant waterhemp can detoxify SA3.

“This is probably the first known example where waterhemp has evolved a detox mechanism that a crop doesn’t have. It’s using a completely different mechanism, adding to the complexity of controlling this weed,” said Dean Riechers, professor in the Department of Crop Sciences at U of I and co-author on a new study in New Phytologist.

The discovery means waterhemp theoretically could be resistant to new herbicide products before they even hit the shelves.

“We’ve always known metabolic resistance is dangerous because it could confer resistance to a yet-to-be-discovered herbicide. We’ve just shown that this is a reality,” Riechers said. “Companies don’t want to invest 10 to 15 years in developing a new herbicide, patent and release it and find it doesn’t work on day one. Our research reinforces that we need to rely more on non-chemical control methods and make sure weeds don’t go to seed.”

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