[Music] Gloria Coruzzi:
So, Chi-ya, can you show me
how the maize growth experiments are coming along? Miles O’Brien:
In Greenwich Village, in lower Manhattan, eight stories up, in a “loft lab,”
biologist Gloria Coruzzi and a team are reimagining
the future of farming – getting down into the weeds,
you might say, on how to make fertilizing greener. Male Team Member:
So, you see that we are collecting the seeds here, and we’re going to count them
to see if some varieties do better. Miles O’Brien:
Commercial fertilizer dramatically increased crop yields
in the 20th century. But, as it’s applied today, much of it ends up
in the groundwater – especially nitrogen,
one of its main components. Gloria Coruzzi:
Making fertilizer, especially the nitrogen component, is energy intensive, it pollutes the environment. We need to figure out
how to get plants to use nitrogen more efficiently, so that we can use less fertilizer.
Miles O’Brien: With support from
the National Science Foundation, Coruzzi and a team
at New York University are using cutting edge genomic tools to develop new plant varieties that don’t need
as much nitrogen to grow. Gloria Coruzzi:
And the problem we want to solve is how do plants use nitrogen and can we get them
to do it more efficiently. Miles O’Brien:
They’re growing trays of arabidopsis, a plant widely used
in genetic research, inside growing chambers. Each is fertilized
with different combinations of nitrogen, phosphate and potassium, or N-P-K – the three main ingredients
in commercial fertilizer. Female Team Member:
Here we are breaking down the cell walls from plants cells
to manipulate the genes so we can study them.
Miles O’Brien: Next comes DNA analysis —
identifying which of the plant’s genes control fertilizer uptake and which N-P-K combinations produce the heartiest plants. Considering each plant
has 30-thousand genes – it’s a “big data” project.
Dennis Shasha: These genes respond
really nicely to nitrogen. Our goal is to try to find
the nuggets of information in that data that the biologists
can later look at and test. So, we took our billions of reads
and we have some genes that look very promising
Miles O’Brien: Computer scientist Dennis Shasha’s team
has identified networks of genes that process nitrogen
in the plant. They’ve also found
master regulator genes – the” kingpins”
of each network, so to speak. Gloria Coruzzi:
There’s a blow-up of four of those master genes. They regulate the expression
of all these other genes. Miles O’Brien:
They’re also modifying these “kingpin” genes to optimize how they take
in fertilizer. If the plants can be coaxed
to absorb more, farmers won’t have to apply as much. Gloria Coruzzi:
We’d be doing a lot for the environment, both in the U.S. preventing
pollution of groundwater and more globally enabling
nitrogen-poor soils in most of the world to be able
to sustain crops used to decrease world hunger.
Miles O’Brien: Harnessing the power of genomic science
to transform agriculture by reinventing
how plants use fertilizer. I’ll give “a green” thumbs up to that. For Science Nation, I’m Miles O’Brien