Penn State’s ‘Fast Farming’ Explores The Future of Agriculture
Columns of grass brighter than an Instagram filter. A red barn. Horses, hay, and their lingering stenches. Maybe there’s a person clad in worn-out overalls, operating a rake or a tractor. The past and present of farming are as resilient as they are picturesque.
The future looks more like a walk-in closet.
That’s where Dr. Charles Anderson, assistant professor of biology in Penn State’s Eberly College of Science, is innovating farming for the future. Anderson and his team are working on a project called “Fast Farming: Feeding a Hot, Dry World,” in light of climate change worries.
A recent USDA study highlights the challenges farmers will face as the Earth’s climate becomes more unpredictable. Throughout the next century, problems including temperature increases, drought, wildfires, and extreme swings in precipitation will challenge farming resiliency. According to the study, climate change will even affect livestock, as the change in temperature will throw off an animal’s optimal core body temperature.
Anderson and his team have been studying the genes of Brachypodium distachyon, a small, fast-growing grass species. Due to its tiny size, more than 10,000 plants can be cultivated in the compact growing room. The room operates under controlled conditions that mimic drought and extreme heat.
The team, comprised of Anderson, a head technician, and PSU undergrad researchers Jaime Jarrin and Liam Farrell, hopes to pinpoint genes that show resistance to a host of climate change complications.
“Right now the team is studying the effects of controlled drought stress on the plants,” said Farrell, a junior plant science major. “All the seeds have bits of DNA inserted into the genome randomly. We grow thousands of plants at a time, then we sort through all of the data we collect to figure out which plants actually were the most drought-tolerant.”
It gets even more meticulous. “We look at those plants on a molecular level and try to identify the genes that are responsible for the drought tolerance,” Farrell continued.
So far, the team has screened thousands of plants. According to Farrell, they have about 14 top contenders and possibly one plant they are considering doing more molecular research on. The team typically gathers a full set of data in about two months. While it’s a slow process, it is moving as quickly as possible to negate already-existing crop damage and to prevent further harm.
As the Earth’s climate becomes more unstable, the team’s research will allow Penn State to make recommendations on which crops to plant to farmers all over the world.
Photos: Michelle Bixby