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ASU researcher finds way to modify crops to use less water, produce more food
Crucial step toward feeding 7 billion people — crops that each produce more food
ASU advance could farm decrease pollution while increasing food production
March 25, 2016

ASU researcher improves crop performance with new biotechnology

An Arizona State University researcher has figured out a way to modify crops that causes them to use less water and fertilizer but grow more food, an exciting development as food security becomes a critical concern as the world’s population expands.

Roberto Gaxiola, an associate professor with the School of Life SciencesThe School of Life Sciences is an academic unit in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences., said his work also enhances a plant’s tolerance to various outside stresses, such as drought or climate change, other factors in feeding the more than seven billion people on the planet.

Gaxiola describes the work as enhancing the way a certain gene in the plant operates.

“This gene helps to move photosynthates — or molecules made by photosynthesis in the leaves — to the places plants need them in order to grow better roots, fruits, young leaves and seeds,” he said.

Current agricultural methods to increase the production of food often overuse fertilizer, causing environmental problems by polluting water and creating dead zones in oceans downstream. Over-fertilization can also cause plants to have small roots — something that was not anticipated when fertilizers were developed in the early 1900s.

Crop yield is improved with new biotechnology
By increasing the expression of the enzyme H+-PPase, plants can more effectively move sugar, water and nutrients to the places they need them to grow better roots, fruits, seeds and young leaves. Credit: David Kiersh, ASU


By changing how effectively a plant uses water and nutrients, farmers would be able to use fewer resources to grow their crops.

“Larger roots allow plants to more efficiently acquire both nutrients and water,” said Gaxiola. “We can optimize inputs while minimizing environmental impacts. This is advantageous for our environment and for all consumers.”

The study showed that altering the way this geneThe gene, which is called type 1 H+-PPase, is found naturally in all plants. works in rice, corn, barley, wheat, tomato, lettuce, cotton and finger millet caused better growth in roots and shoots, and also improved how the plants absorbed nutrients.

The crops also saw improved water use and tolerance to salt in the soil, which is bad for crops.

The study’s findings were published in the scientific journal Trends in Biotechnology.

Gaxiola, who is the lead author of the study, collaborated with researchers from the University of Arizona, University of North Texas and with the USDA/ARS Children's Nutrition Research Center, Baylor College of Medicine.

He said the next step is to further study this simple biotechnology in order to maximize its agricultural potential.

This study was funded by the National Science Foundation (IOS-1122148). 

Top photo by Thomas Westcott,

Sandra Leander

Manager, Media Relations and Marketing , School of Life Sciences


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ASU team will transform NASA data into "bite-size educational experiences."
NASA project pulls together rock-star team of ASU scientists.
Aim of ASU project is to teach science as a process, as solving problems.
March 28, 2016

ASU wins $10M NASA grant to develop education courseware with aim to create critical thinkers both near and far

Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration is about to take the whole nation on a school tour.

Rock stars in their fields will guide virtual field tours of bodies in the solar system. Mars experts Phil Christensen and Jim Bell will help students explore the Red Planet. Enceladus researcher Ariel Anbar will show them Saturn’s tiny icy moon. Erik Asphaug will lead the way to asteroids.

Part of the school’s mission is outreach, said School of Earth and Space ExplorationThe School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. (SESE) director Lindy Elkins-Tanton, and with a new $10.18 million grant from NASA, SESE’s impact on schoolchildren will go from thousands to millions.

The school’s top researchers will develop next-generation digital learning experiences that incorporate NASA science content. The result of the five-year project will be “bite-size educational experiences” available for free on the Internet, according to Elkins-Tanton.

ASU is the sole Internet platform content-delivery method within the new NASA education program. “We’re it,” Elkins-Tanton said.

“There’s a huge need to reach out at scale,” she said. “And when you talk about scale, you’re talking about the Internet.”

NASA has a ton of content on the Web. ASU will work with designers to create interactive content on a platform that makes NASA data accessible and interactive.

“We were trying to take all those ideas and bring them to the next level of effectiveness,” said Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator on the project.

“The aim is to help learners become problem-solvers capable of exploring the unknown, rather than just mastering what is already known,” said Ariel Anbar, project deputy principal investigator. “It is learning science as process and as a universe of questions rather than as a dusty collection of facts.”

Students will go to a portal, select from a library of experiences and be launched into a cool NASA data-infused experience, Anbar said. It’ll be different from traditional NASA outreach, which typically buries the user in facts. In this effort, students will be taught to solve problems they haven’t seen before.

“You will be learning that material but through the context of this cool NASA exploratory data,” Anbar said. “Part of it is increasingly we’re trying to teach science not as facts, but as a process. ... Our theme is changing from mastery of what we know to the ability to explore the unknown.”

“The aim is to help learners become problem-solvers capable of exploring the unknown, rather than just mastering what is already known. It is learning science as process and as a universe of questions rather than as a dusty collection of facts.”
— ASU professor Ariel Anbar, project deputy principal investigator

SESE officials said they hope to get to a scale of millions of users.

“The learning experiences we’re going to be building will be interactive and adaptive,” Anbar said. “It will be, ‘Go look at this, and do it in a virtual space, and receive feedback.’”

To this end, SESE has put together a crack team, led by principal investigator Elkins-Tanton, deputy principal investigator Anbar, and co-investigators Steven Semken, Sheri Klug-Boonstra and Dror Ben-Naim. Other co-investigators include SESE’s Erik Asphaug, Jim Bell, Phil Christensen, Scott Parazynski, Meenakshi Wadhwa, Sara Imari Walker, David Williams and Patrick Young. With faculty like these on board, it will be like having Jacques Cousteau build your aquarium.

Together with adaptive learning provider Smart Sparrow, this team will develop personalized and adaptive learning experiences centered on astrobiology and “small bodies” such as Saturn’s moon Enceladus, Jupiter’s moon Europa, and asteroids. These are specific areas of expertise among the NASA subject-matter experts on the ASU team. 

“They will bring their expertise to our content,” Elkins-Tanton said.

The grant comes from NASA's Science Mission Directorate. Their vision is to share the story, the science and the adventure of NASA's scientific explorations through stimulating and informative activities and experiences created by experts, delivered effectively and efficiently to learners of many backgrounds.

“SESE is known for combining the creative strengths of science, engineering and education, setting the stage for a new era of exploration,” Elkins-Tanton said. “With this grant, we can promote a greater public understanding and appreciation for science, and inspire a new generation of explorers. We hope to share the exciting world of NASA science in a way that is both approachable and interactive.”

In the near term, the focus will be on independent self-learners of science. In the longer term, the team seeks to expand the program to formal K-12 education, in coordination with NASA’s new education strategies.

“This grant brings together education powerhouses — ASU and NASA, together with a trusted edtech partner — to promote STEM education through exploration," said Sethuraman “Panch” Panchanathan, chief research and innovation officer and executive vice president at the ASU Knowledge Enterprise Development. “This opportunity helps ASU engage and empower learners from all backgrounds and proficiencies to master concepts, ask open-ended questions regarding what’s next, and prepare to explore the unknown with the help of technology.”

Scott Seckel

Reporter , ASU Now