RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – North Carolina State University  will lead a new $30 million research program intended to make crops more resilient against environmental stresses while reducing the need for chemical treatments and irrigation.

NCSU will receive about $8 million of the program’s funding over six years to study how microbes in soil, roots and leaves interact with plants and affect plant health and productivity.

The research will be carried out by the Collaborative Crop Resilience Program (CCRP) with funding from the Novo Nordisk Foundation, the parent organization of Novozymes, a Danish life sciences company and research partner of NCSU. (Novozymes has its North American headquarters and an enzyme-production plant in Franklinton, N.C., and a bioagriculture research and development facility in Research Triangle Park.)

NCSU-led Collaboration

The CCRP program will be led by NCSU’s Amy Grunden, William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Plant and Microbial Biology, who helped develop the program’s proposal after holding a workshop in Denmark on plant and microbe interactions. The University of Copenhagen, Aarhus University and the Technical University of Denmark will collaborate on the interdisciplinary program.

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“The CCRP positions NC State at the forefront of discovery in plant sciences and in translating these discoveries into solutions for farmers, life-sciences companies and consumers,” said NCSU Chancellor Randy Woodson.

The research will take a holistic view of plants and their interactions with microbes in the soil, roots and foliage. A plant’s microbiome – its microbes and the ways they interact with the plant – plays a critical role in plant health and well-being, similar to the way the human gut microbiome influences human health.

Focus on Wheat

Wheat, one of the world’s more important crops in both production and value, will be the featured crop in various studies – including heat, cold and drought tolerance – occurring in Denmark and North Carolina. The findings in wheat may also apply to other important cereal crops such as corn and rice.

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“The goal is to improve plant productivity in the face of climate change and emerging pathogens and pests by leveraging microbes to help plants avoid stresses while acquiring nutrients to reduce fertilizer, pesticide and irrigation,” Grunden said.

“But we have two big challenges,” she added. “We don’t know enough about how plants recruit and maintain their microbiomes. And we don’t yet know how to use big data analytics to understand plant-microbe-soil interactions given the complexity of these relationships in a constantly changing environment.”

The CCRP will focus on three projects:

  • Wheat plant-microbial interactions above ground. Field and greenhouse studies in Denmark and North Carolina will provide data on how microbes and metabolites influence wheat resilience and yield.
  • Interactions between wheat plants and microbes below ground. Field and greenhouse studies in Denmark and North Carolina will help provide predictive models for microbiome structure/function and wheat performance under different environmental stresses, such as cold resistance in Denmark and heat resistance in North Carolina.
  • Development of new crop varieties and microbial interventions that will improve productivity, reduce the need for fertilizers and pesticides, and alleviate negative environmental impact. Three plants will be studied: Lotus japonicas, a Japanese legume, to model soybean; wheat to represent cereal crops; and Arabadopsis thaliana, the lab rat of plant systems.
Collaborating to Solve Tough Challenges

Richard Linton, dean of NCSU’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, said the grant funding builds on, and advances, the North Carolina Plant Sciences Initiative (NCPSI).

“The initiative was envisioned as a way to create the kind of problem-solving interdisciplinary partnerships needed to address complex problems related to food, health and agriculture,” he said. “That’s precisely what this new research partnership is all about.”

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NCPSI helped spur the 2018 Danish workshop on plant-microbe interactions. That workshop, in turn, drove the proposal to the Novo Nordisk Foundation seeking to improve crop security and resilience.

“The CCRP and NCPSI are really parallel and overlapping efforts,” Grunden said. “Excellence in plant sciences and interdisciplinary research drive both programs, especially the CCRP with its specific focus on plant security through plant improvement, data science and sustainability. Food security is a problem too great for one discipline to solve, so integrating collaborations across disciplines is key to finding solutions.”

(C) NC Biotech Center