Written by: Beth Ann Luedeker

Part of President Michael Young’s excellence program, X-Grants is an interdisciplinary program intended to find creative solutions to some of the most important challenges facing the global society.

Several projects selected to receive X-Grants funding include Soil and Crop Sciences faculty. “CRISPER Gene Editing for Healthier Foods and Crop Resistance” is led by Dr. Michael Thomson; “Multi-functional and Sustainable Materials for 3-D Printing Environmentally Adaptive Resilient Buildings” is led by Dr. Paul Schwab; and Dr. Cristine Morgan is involved with “Monitoring Rapidly Changing Arctic Ecosystems Using High-Resolution Satellite-Based Datasets and Artificial Intelligence.

Dr. Michael Thomson
Dr. Michael Thomson

The CRISPR gene editing project led by Thomson includes 16 members across five departments and two agencies, including four other Soil and Crop Sciences faculty: Dr. Joseph Awika, Dr. Endang Septiningsih, Dr. Keerti Rathore and Dr. Sakiko Okumoto.

“The interdisciplinary team will enable greater interactions between faculty from the College of Engineering and COALS to accelerate the application of gene editing for crop improvement, facilitated by co-leaders from Electrical and Computer Engineering (Dr. Aniruddha Datta) and Plant Pathology and Microbiology (Dr. Libo Shan),” Thomson explained.

This two-year pilot project will test a series of breakthrough technologies that have the potential to increase the power and efficiency of crop gene editing, while at the same time establishing a collaborative platform called the “CRISPR Crops Initiative” to provide a focal point for crop gene editing activities on campus.

Healthier foods are needed to address the dual challenges of malnutrition in the developing world and chronic disease prevention in the developed world.  Likewise, changing climate patterns along with a greater demand for food require that future crops combine higher yields with tolerance to abiotic stresses and resistance to invasive pests and pathogens.

In 2012, a landmark discovery demonstrated that Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeat (CRISPR)-based bacterial defense systems can be used for precise gene editing. Since then, CRISPR technologies have begun to transform the fields of medicine, plant and animal research, and microbiology.

“One of the most promising applications of gene editing is to rapidly accelerate plant breeding efforts, as the technology is perfectly suited for a quantum leap in crop improvement due to the power of the technology to precisely modify genes and the straightforward regulatory pathway for this non-transgenic approach,” Thomson said.

“This project will establish the CRISPR Crops Initiative to encourage interdisciplinary interactions between faculty and will integrate advances into the new AgriLife Research Crop Genome Editing Lab to accelerate crop editing projects across the Texas A&M system through the core facility services.

Paul Schwab
Dr. Paul Schwab

Dr. Paul Schwab, an environmental soil chemist in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, is part of the 3-D printing project led by Dr. Zofia Rybkowski of the Department of Construction Science. Other team members include: Manish Dixit from Construction Science; Sarbajit Banerjee from Chemistry, Bjorn Birgisson from Civil Engineering; Negar Kalantar from Architecture; and Aditi Pandey, a doctoral student in soil science.

“3D printing is the computer controlled production of three-dimensional objects,” said Schwab. “Our team will be examining the application of 3D printing to the rapid production of structures, primarily buildings.”

Schwab explained that one unusual aspects of this project will be printing buildings from local materials while minimizing the environmental and ecological impacts of the construction. The base materials will be clay minerals or soils and will be used to establish the shape of the structure.

The team will seek to find local binding materials (cellulose, resins, lignins) that will hold the clays/soils together, much like straw is used in making adobe bricks, he said. Advanced molecular modeling will help choose and modify binders that will not inhibit the printing process and will cure quickly.

A larger scale computer-based model will control the 3D printer to add high levels of efficiency and sophistication to the construction including adaptive insulation, water repellency and the greatest structural stability while using the least amount of materials.

Potential applications of the emerging technology include erecting temporary structures in hostile environments, such as health clinics to fight disease in tropical jungles or shelters in remote locations.

Cristine Morgan
Dr. Cristine Morgan

The arctic project, led by Dr. Julie Loisel, is made up of ten members across five departments, including Morgan, a soil scientist in the Department of Soil and Crop Sciences, and professors in the departments of Geography, Civil Engineering, Computer Science, and Meteorology.

The goal of this pilot project is to incorporate big data into arctic research to generate the first reliable Holarctic map of permafrost-affected ecosystems and to address fundamental research questions pertaining to arctic science.

Land-use and climate change are impacting the world’s ecosystems even in the most remote areas, the grant writers explained. Permafrost soils contain large amounts of organic carbon and nitrogen which may be released if soils warm.

Currently there is no effective way to estimate future greenhouse gas emissions in permafrost-affected ecosystems.
According to the grant, this project will combine satellite based datasets with emerging computational and information technologies to monitor and document changes in the permafrost soils and associated greenhouse gas emissions.

This information will help determine the accuracy of current soil carbon predictive models, allow for data model comparison, provide new constraints on nitrogen cycling in the arctic and provide new means to monitor permafrost landscapes.

“Ultimately, we will contribute to the ongoing and future Arctic observational networks and provide new means to monitor permafrost landscapes,” the team said.