Clemson researchers untangling the complex inner workings of plants
CLEMSON — Talk about an enormous appetite.
Earth is strained – some think nearly to the breaking point – by 7.3 billion people. How do we feed them all? How do we keep them cool in the summer and warm in the winter? How do we maintain livable environments? And eventually, how do we avoid a frightening outcome straight out of a science fiction novel?
Complex questions require complex answers.
In collaboration with scientists around the world, researchers at Clemson University are tackling these important issues. And one of the ways they’re doing it is by developing new understandings of the genetic inner workings of our most plentiful food: plants.
“We need raw materials to fuel our economy,” said Alex Feltus, an associate professor of genetics and biochemistry at Clemson University. “Billions of people need lots of stuff. Food, fiber, fuel, building materials, pharmaceuticals and other products are harvested from crops. There is nothing new here.
“What is new is our ability to unlock and reorganize the genes of any organism to rapidly develop new crop varieties that yield more or novel products. If we want stable economies in the face of population pressure and climate change, we need to be able to enhance and redirect our commodity streams with the rapid rollout of new crops that naturally make the stuff we all need.”
Though invisible to the naked eye, the intertwining genetic traits that control how big and robust plants grow, how well they resist disease, what products they yield and how well they tolerate drought are no longer invisible to 21st-century researchers. Today’s emerging technologies would impress not just Egyptian “plant scientists” in 5000 B.C., but anyone who was around, say, in the year 2010 A.D. However, despite the recent revolution in crop genomics, identifying genes and understanding how they interact remain daunting tasks that are only in their infant stages when compared to what the future might hold.
“There is an emerging respect for the complexity of an organism at the DNA level,” said Feltus. “There is not one gene that controls relevant traits like yield. In reality, there is a complex interaction of many genes that need to be mixed in the right combination to achieve crops useful to the farmer. Using new technologies like modern DNA sequencers, supercomputers and novel approaches like systems genetics, we quite possibly have the tools to find the hidden groups of genes that drive plants in the way we want them to go. What is really exciting to me is that we may be able to combine the right versions of genes using natural crosses, thus avoiding the genetically modified organism (GMO) issue. “
Feltus is one of a growing number of researchers who are using data mining tools to unravel and sort gigantic bundles of information at mind-boggling speeds. With the help of Clemson University’s Palmetto Cluster – the world’s 89th fastest supercomputer – Feltus is able to map and study the complex manner in which multiple genes and environmental signals control a plant’s health, appearance and growth potential.
“We now have the DNA blueprint from dozens of crops like rice, sorghum, corn, soybean and cotton,” said Feltus. “I am using technology like the Palmetto Cluster to organize and dig through the haystacks of data from all these organisms. I am not looking for one needle. Rather, I am searching for collections of needles. These needles are the genes that can be mixed in novel ways to produce raw materials that support our economy and maintain a quality of life under the pressures of unprecedented population growth and climate change.
“Supercomputers, DNA sequencers and advanced genetic techniques are now in our toolbox. We can use these tools to shine light into the black box and peek at how a plant translates the information in DNA into a useful harvestable product. I’m excited!”