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New NSF awards target breakthrough technologies to enhance food security

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Fluorescent proteins expressed in Arabidopsis pollen
Credit: Greg Copenhaver, UNC-Chapel Hill

July 23, 2019

Imagine crops that required less water because a "wearable sensor" could "grow" along with a plant and provide more accurate and continuous readings of its hydration. Such a sensor would allow scientists to address fundamental questions about how water is used in a plant and could lead to the development of plants that are more water efficient. Or what about learning what makes some plants grow well even under environmental stress? Understanding how such high priority traits are inherited and genetically modified could lead to corn plants that are more environmentally resilient.

Such cutting-edge responses to fundamental questions will result from a new collaboration among the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and the United Kingdom Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Basic discoveries leading to translatable outcomes are the key to this collaborative effort.

With more than 7½ billion people on the planet, the agriculture enterprise is looking for ways to combat the impact of drought, flood, pests and disease, and that is at the root of the "high-risk, high-reward" fundamental research in these new Breakthrough Technologies awards.

"This competition called for scientists and engineers to collaborate and build new, effective solutions to improve crop systems by harnessing all available technologies," said Anne Sylvester, the program director who oversaw NSF's share of approximately $3 million in funding for Early Concept Grants for Exploratory Research to Develop Breakthrough Ideas and Enabling Technologies to Advance Crop Breeding and Functional Genomics.

"Environmental change, population disruption and agricultural needs are profound, global concerns. We expect this research to yield technology breakthroughs that accelerate improvements in how crops respond to sudden environmental stress, unexpected pathogen invasion or other instances where there's critical need," Sylvester added.

New technologies can also help discover how crop systems can preserve and better mobilize water and nutrient resources (for example, high-tech plant wearable sensors), as well as identify how to circumvent genetic constraints to develop new crop varieties. Just as technology has transformed the way people interact and work, these high-risk/high-reward projects are expected to deliver technologies used in functional studies with the potential to produce resilient, efficient and more productive crop systems.

"UKRI's Fund for International Collaboration has enabled us to strengthen our relationship with the U.S.," said Melanie Welham, executive chair of BBSRC. "Transnational funding calls such as this allow BBSRC not only to foster scientific excellence but also to help tackle global challenges like food security and reduce environmental impacts from agriculture."

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering. In fiscal year (FY) 2019, its budget is $8.1 billion. NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and other institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 50,000 competitive proposals for funding and makes about 12,000 new funding awards.

Useful NSF Web Sites:
NSF Home Page: https://www.nsf.gov
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For the News Media: https://www.nsf.gov/news/newsroom.jsp
Science and Engineering Statistics: https://www.nsf.gov/statistics/
Awards Searches: https://www.nsf.gov/awardsearch/