There are many solutions to the challenge of producing food for an ever-growing human population. One approach is to simply produce more food; we have seen successes on this front from research teams at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Another approach, proposed by biologists at Washington University, St. Louis, attempts to increase quality over quantity, increasing nutrient content in existing crops.
“In 100 years, there will be more cities and less farmland, but we will need more food,” says postdoctoral researcher Ramesh Raliya (image left, courtesy WUSTL). “At the same time, water will be limited because of climate change.” In his eyes, simply increasing agricultural output is not enough: we need to condense our resources and utilize a smaller growing space while using less water to grow crops.
Raliya’s solution, then, is to grow more nutrient-dense crops. He started by looking at zinc dioxide and titanium dioxide, two compounds commonly used in fertilizer. These compounds boost chlorophyll production, which accelerates light absorption thus plant growth, ultimately increasing the nutrient density of plants. But, Raliya thought, why apply a light-related compound to the soil, instead of the leaves, where photosynthesis occurs?
Using state of the art aerosol technology, Raliya applied nanoparticles of these compounds to the leaves of tomato plants, instead of the soil. “We found that our aerosol technique resulted in much greater uptake of nutrients by the plant in comparison to application of the nanoparticles to soil,” Raliya says in a recent WUSTL article. The treated tomato plants were 82 percent heavier than control samples and showed a significant increase in lycopene, an antioxidant linked to reduced risk of cancer, heart disease and age-related eye disorders.
Raliya is next trying to supply more essential plant nutrients in the form of nanoparticle spray, with the goal of increasing nutrient density further and reducing the amount of natural resources like light and water necessary to grow the plants.
This work was supported by the Lopata Endowment and the National Science Foundation. For additional information about funding for research at Washington University in St. Louis, read our free WUSTL Funding Statistics Report, available via the link below:
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