Root Biology Center aims to boost crop yields around the globe

Nalini Krishnankutty
February 20, 2010

Jonathan Lynch gets to the root of things. A professor of horticulture at Penn State, Lynch believes that understanding plant root architecture may be the key to producing enough food to feed the world's six billion people.

"One of the main problems [in global agriculture] is low yields of plants because of drought, low soil fertility, and lack of access to fertilizer and irrigation in many parts of the world," he explains. His research over the past 25 years with collaborators in the U.S., Asia, Latin America and Africa has shown that root architecture plays a critical role in determining plant yields under stressful soil conditions. Correlated with genetic information, root traits can be harnessed to create higher-yield varieties of important crops like corn, bean and soybean, he says. "We can then give farmers seeds which will do well in poor soils, without fertilizer and irrigation."

In the developed world, Lynch adds, stronger roots can have economic and environmental benefits. "The biggest cost in growing corn is nitrogen fertilizer," he explains. "Nitrogen is also the biggest pollutant, since half of the fertilizer gets leached into the soil before the roots can get it." He is currently working on developing corn varieties with roots that absorb the nutrient more efficiently.

Recently, Lynch's work received an important boost with a grant from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. Howard Buffett, a farmer, photographer, conservationist and philanthropist, is interested in improving crop yields as a means to increase food supply, Lynch notes. When Buffett read about Lynch's work in a Midwest farm publication, "he called me," says Lynch. The two met at the end of 2008, and in early 2009 Lynch and members of his lab visited Buffett's 6,000-acre farm in South Africa. When Lynch pronounced the sandy, low-fertility African soil ideal for his research, Buffett offered him the use of a fifty-acre field, along with a $1.5 million research grant. The Ukulima Root Biology Center was born.

Having an experimental base in the Southern Hemisphere, Lynch says, will give him access to two growing seasons, and the ability to study drought and other stress factors on a large scale. In addition, "We can wash nitrogen out of the sandy soil and create low nitrogen conditions very easily," he says. "And the sandy soil makes it easy to dig out roots for study."

Lynch says he is amazed at how rapidly the Ukulima Center has taken off. "Howard Buffett is a man of action," he says. "He built us a very nice, fully equipped laboratory, with housing and internet access."

In January 2010, several of Lynch's graduate students and post-doctoral researchers will deploy to South Africa to begin a large and complex field planting of thousands of corn and bean genotypes. "This new partnership has created an additional resource to add to our existing projects," Lynch says. "It will allow us to work faster and better."

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Jonathan P. Lynch, Ph.D., is professor of plant nutrition in the College of Agricultural Sciences,

Last Updated February 20, 2010