UNL Plant Trait Research Saves Water, Grows More Food
By William Whited
"Being able to produce food at a reasonable cost is very important for those parts in the world that are underdeveloped," said James Specht, University of Nebraska- Lincoln professor of agronomy and horticulture. "They have to spend most of their funds on food rather than other things."
Specht said the plant engineering research at UNL impacts the world's population by helping to keep food production costs at practical levels at home and abroad. What matters most, he said, is not how many awards a research team may receive, but how UNL's plant engineering affects people's lives from the field to the dinner table. "Boost crop productivity, feed the world," Specht said.
Food: A Global Commonality
The need for food rises each day as the world's population grows. Experts estimate Earth's population will swell to 9 billion by 2050. According to Specht, genetic research helps improve staple crops like rice, corn and soy. The focus of UNL research is finding ways for crops to produce more food per acre while conserving water around the world, he said.
For Specht, soybeans comprise an important area of agricultural research that yields more protein-enriched and healthier food to people, in the form of cooking oil.
"Most of the vegetable oil you buy in the supermarket is soybean oil and you can buy corn oil, olive oil, and some others," Specht said. "But by and large the mass-produced cooking oil comes from soybeans."
Tofu, margarine and soy sauce are examples of products people directly consume, Specht said, but soybeans more commonly are used as food additives in everything from bodybuilder protein shakes to baked goods and commercial chocolate. After removing the oil, the remaining soy protein is used to feed livestock, primarily swine and poultry, because soy protein contains critical amino acids and other essential nutrients, he said.
Feeding More People Through Soybean Research
Specht earned his Ph.D. from UNL in 1974 and was hired by the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 1975 as a soybean researcher. In 1999, he collaborated with a national soy genetics team working with the United States Department of Agriculture and Department of Energy, during which team members mapped the entire soy genome sequence, giving scientists a time-saving method to study the genes of the soybean plant. Scientists use the genetic mapping to know each experimental breed's features without having to grow a crop. This knowledge allows today's genetic engineering of soybean plants, Specht said.
The genetically-engineered seeds offer numerous benefits, including stronger traits for disease and pest resistance, higher yield, more usable plant mass for less water, and greater protein and oil content. According to Specht, all these benefits allow for a bigger, higher-yield crop that's less expensive for farmers to produce, and result in less expensive food for consumers. Part of this money-saving process requires careful monitoring of crops and climate to minimize fresh water use.
Saving Water Through Technology
According to Specht, one way UNL connects with local producers to save water is through the university's recent SoyWater website (www.soywater.unl.edu). The website features a soil water analysis system, which was made available to the public in May 2010. The site can be used to track weather changes and soil moisture levels of the previous few days or predict these for the next few days. The website uses data that comes from Nebraska's High Plains Regional Climate Center, which is located at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
The one-page printable data summary allows farmers to project when and how much irrigation water their soybeans will need, Specht said. This electronic advantage saves hours that used to be spent doing manual calculations for crop watering, he said. The system summarizes data into one page that farmers can read quickly, or will provide a chart of data, if that option is preferred.
"UNL SoyWater allows producers to better schedule their irrigations to save at least an inch of water at the beginning of the season and perhaps an inch of water at the end," Specht said. An acre-inch of rain or irrigation is 27,154 gallons of water per acre. He said his ultimate soybean research goal would be to grow three-and-a-half bushels of soybean per acre for each acre-inch of water from rainfall and irrigation.
Balanced Plant Traits Save Water, Are Sustainable
Specht said genetic engineering also has the potential to reduce natural water loss from evaporation and transpiration by having a balance of traits for growth. These traits include leaf formation, reflectivity of heat from sunlight, canopy height and roots.
Researchers are developing plants with root systems developed to take up only the amount of soil-stored water that is annually rechargeable, Specht said, therefore creating a more sustainable soybean plant. Research is also improving the plants' durability by engineering experimental breeds that are about six to 10 inches shorter than current soybean plants. Taller plants are prone to being knocked over during storms or irrigation, he said; the shorter ones may better withstand those challenges.
Still, Specht and his research colleagues continue to engineer more efficient systems for related areas. One future project might be the engineering of photosynthesis, called the C-4 pathway, into soybean, which has the C-3 pathway. Improving the photosynthetic pathway in soybean, or the plant's light-absorbing ability, would lead to "more crop per drop," he said.
What Powers Soybean Research?
Specht said the thrill of science comes from discovering knowledge nobody else knows. He said discoveries from research make science fun and allow sharing of new knowledge that benefits the global community. But continued sharing requires funding.
Recent funding included a $38,000 grant from 2007 for mapping soybean genes. Other funding includes an $89,000 United States Department of Agriculture grant in 2008 for studying drought tolerance. Research grants allow new hires to expand research, he said.
"In order to conduct research you have to have the ability to pay some of the operating expenses in research and hire critical people, like graduate students and research technicians and post-doctoral research associates," Specht said.
Advancing Projects in the Future
While grants and awards help increase the world's food supply through research, his prime motivation is developing technologies that ultimately benefit society, Specht said.
"One always has to judge oneself not by the number of publications and not by the number of grants, but whether you have had an impact, impact in influencing the lives, improving lives, enhancing agriculture," Specht said. "I feel I've had an impact."
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