By Tracy Henion
“We see plants as unlimited resources, but we don’t realize that ultimately plants may become limited because the population is growing, but the agricultural land is not.”
Federica Brandizzi’s succinct summation of the population-to-land ratio dilemma is at the heart of her research at Michigan State University.
The Brandizzi lab is investigating the technology needed to help plant cells soften their cell walls to allow them to expand and grow bigger in the field. Essentially, she’s working to help plants grow bigger, maximizing on the space needed for crops.
“Working with MSU Technologies and the MSU Innovation Center has allowed us to understand the value of this discovery for crops,” Brandizzi said. “We had identified the technology and established it, but with the help of the MSU Innovation Center, we understood we could apply this technology to crops that are relevant for feed and other plant-based products.”
From creating a seed that grows into more nutritious, better digestible alfalfa for animals to engineering sorghum and soybeans to grow bigger, Brandizzi’s work translates into crops making better use of available land.
“The MSU Innovation Center has put us in touch with companies interested in our technology,” Brandizzi said. “By creating plants that grow bigger and taller in the field, you save water, space and nutrients.”
The only downside of working with crops? Waiting for the results in field trials – in actual fields.
Brandizzi’s lab was established at MSU in 2006. The first publication on this research was in 2011. From establishing model plants to publishing results for peer review to becoming a leader in the field, it’s taken roughly a decade to demonstrate results. But interest and exposure are growing. Literally.
“We are scientists in the lab. We have limited understanding of real life,” Brandizzi said, laughing. “We get really excited about things normal people would say ‘really?’ about. But working with the MSU Innovation Center has taught us how to appreciate the potential of our technology in the applied field.
“They’ve always been extremely excited with us.”
Brandizzi said that excitement has been essential for developing perspective on her work.
“There’s the perception that cancer studies and medicine are the most important things in research because you can see immediate results in a drug,” she said. “Ultimately, people don’t see that plants produce the oxygen we breathe. It takes solar energy and water to convert into sugar and other forms of energy that allow plants to grow. Animals feed on the plants, we eat the plants and the animals.”
Brandizzi’s enthusiasm for her work is evident in her voice. She’s excited about her research, energized by its potential application.
“I have a large lab and I’m very proud of that,” Brandizzi said. “I’m surrounded by very smart people who are always enthusiastic.”
Thanks to support from the MSU Innovation Center as well as funding from the National Institute of Health, the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy and others, Brandizzi and her team continue to push the boundaries of what’s possible in plant cells.
“We have a grant from NASA to send plants to the International Space Station to understand how they respond to a lunar environment,” she said. “One day we may need to colonize space because our space on Earth is limited. We have to understand how plants respond in that environment.
“A way to sustain humans’ life ultimately is to understand how we can improve plants.”