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Martin Polz - Growing season

New professional education program on agriculture, innovation, and the environment attracts global agricultural leaders to MIT.

Marilyn Siderwicz | Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering
July 19, 2016

One of MIT's strengths is bringing together business, technology, government, and academic leaders, at the Institute's Professional Education Short Programs. This spring, a new five-day course – Agriculture, Innovation and the Environment – showcased innovative technologies and strategies to make the agriculture industry more productive, and attracted a score of professionals from all over the world. The participants engaged in deep conversations with the instructors and each other, brainstorming new initiatives and ideas to take back to their companies and organizations.

The timing is opportune. Experts agree that by 2050 the earth's population will likely reach 9.5 billion people, requiring an 80 percent increase in agricultural production. But how will this goal be achieved?

The instructors emphasized that people will need to work better together across disciplines to create the type of change necessary to make agriculture more efficient, effective, scalable, and sustainable, and to use fundamental understanding to create new solutions.

"We are proud to have introduced in our portfolio this year a highly interactive, practitioner-oriented course that harkens back to the founding days of MIT when serving 'the advancement of agriculture' was included in its core mission," said Bhaskar Pant, executive director of MIT Professional Education. "It is gratifying to see that the course addressing the food production growth challenges of the 21st century elicited the interest of such a wide array of global professionals engaged in the field."

The faculty director, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE) head and McAfee Professor of Engineering Markus J. Buehler, said he and co-director Edmund W. Schuster designed the curriculum to include multiple MIT faculty and initiative heads, government leaders, and industry representatives to give a wide and deep view of agriculture productivity issues. Most of the days' presentations were lecture-driven, however, the program included plenty of time for classroom discussion, group work, lab demonstrations, and hands-on experiments too.

Course participants – some with science and engineering backgrounds, others with data analytics, economics, policy, or entrepreneurial interests – came from as far away as South America and the United Kingdom, as well as from across the United States, to learn more.

Marcio Aurelio Soares Santos of Brazil is general manager of a multinational company that produces products and services for the management of irrigation water and road infrastructure. He said he attended the short course to better understand the complex issues behind the use of natural resources.

"There are some boundaries that need to be respected when you have controversy about natural resources use," he said. "When you have controversy, you often don't have a clear understanding of these things. By coming to MIT, I can put the science in cooperation together with the arguments, and that means a lot when addressing some of these questions. A broad view gives you the confidence to move forward despite uncertainty."

Getting down and dirty

Buehler opened the course with remarks that set the stage for key course takeaways. He introduced guest speaker Ken Sudduth, research agricultural engineer of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) Agricultural Research Service, who gave an overview of the agriculture industry and then asked the group to imagine themselves as farmers and what farming could be someday.

"Imagine remote and in situ sensing of influential soil factors before you even begin to plant," Sudduth began. "Next, imagine superimposing weather estimates and field topography, and using models and agri-informatics to generate maps of the genetic traits needed based on environmental factors plus yield and quality targets. Now go ahead and plant your crop while applying beneficial microbes and time release fertilizer. Remote sensing of real-time crop status and real-time adjustments can be obtained through nanotechnology breakthroughs. Get real-time sensing of product 'ripeness' based on weather forecast and market targets. Automate your harvest and use models to begin planning for best use next year taking into account field conditions, global markets, forecast weather, and environmental goals."

Sudduth's challenge highlighted the promise of agricultural advancements, assuming climate variability and the opportunities to optimize performance of genetic resources under varying environmental conditions.

Data-driven decision-making and technology improvements also played heavily in Sudduth's ideal. Many of his points were to be expanded upon by additional speakers during the week. MIT faculty members, in particular, talked about ways small innovation in the lab often leads to creation of systems with large-scale tangible impacts. This topic – which CEE calls "big engineering" – also ties into the MIT.nano project, a new MIT facility opening in 2018 where researchers will study nanotechnology, including microscale innovations to improve plant health and crop production, to find ways to scale up nanotechnology to innovations that benefit society.

Tip of the iceberg, but not the lettuce variety

Professor Dennis McLaughlin, the H.M. King Bhumibol Professor in CEE, believes that strategies for increasing food production must consider environmental impacts if the resources needed to grow crops are to be preserved. He said the so-called Green Revolution from 1930-60 expanded the use of hybrid seeds, synthetic fertilizers, and irrigation. This fueled increased output but also had a dramatic impact on the natural environment, including the carbon, nitrogen, and phosphorous cycles. A new Green Revolution will be needed to simultaneously achieve increased demand and environmental sustainability.

"We have sufficient resources to meet reasonable demand for food. The real question is whether our use of these resources will be sustainable," says McLaughlin. "We have a range of options for increasing production, but often poor understanding of their performance and impacts. Climate change adds further uncertainty. We need better data and more experiments, guided by a conceptual framework that considers crop production, costs, and the environment."

McLaughlin told the class that there are five global changes that can be expected to impact food production: higher maximum temperatures during the growing season; increased variation in water availability; increased atmospheric carbon dioxide and ozone; changes in ocean acidification and temperature; and poorly understood interactions among climate, nutrient availability, and losses to pests. All could have positive or negative impacts, depending on their magnitude and location.

CEE Professor Martin Polz and Associate Professor Dan Cziczo emphasized the important roles climate, weather, and microbiology play in agricultural productivity.

Polz painted the big picture by describing challenges with microbial abundance and diversity, and their future threats to both agriculture and people. He talked about the overuse of antibiotics in some countries and ways emergent pathogens like bacteria, viruses, fungi, and protozoa often co-evolve with their hosts.

"We need to better understand interactions of plants and animals with their microbiomes," Polz said, adding there are opportunities to enhance positive interactions and suppress negative ones such as targeting pathogens with phage, viruses that are specific to bacteria and which can be used to fight infections.

CEE Associate Professor Ruben Juanes, director of the Henry L. Pierce Laboratory for Infrastructure Science and Engineering, gave a deep-dive, technical review of his lab's research at the intersection of water, soil, and infrastructure. His work applies theoretical, computational, and experimental research to energy and environment-driven geophysical problems, including carbon sequestration, methane hydrates, and water infiltration in soil.

The role of smart systems, climate, fluid dynamics, and biomaterials engineering

The second day began with a Smart(er) Agriculture treatise by Daniel Schmoldt, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) national program leader. He spoke about advancing precision agriculture for just-in-time-and-place agriculture, including the use of sensors, cyber-physical systems, robotics, and big data. He used an example of growing better blackberries and raspberries to showcase ways "smart systems" produce results through new sensing and measuring technologies, screening of plant genotypes and phenotypes, managing resulting big data for improved insight, breeding desirable crop varieties, and enhancing harvesting and distribution systems.

The Daniel Griffith Anderson, the Samuel A. Goldblith Professor of Applied Biology, Chemical Engineering and Health Sciences and Technology at MIT, followed with a technical talk about RNAi and biological frontiers.

CEE professors had the audiences' attention for the rest of the day, first with a tag team composed of postdoc Ross E. Alter from the Eltahir research group, who led a technical presentation on irrigation and rainfall, and then from Lydia Bourouiba, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Career Development Assistant Professor, describing her research on disease transmission and fluid mechanics. Bourouiba enthralled the class with her graphic research videos showing detailed slow-motion dynamics of fluid fragmentation and interfacial flows and later with demonstrations and hands-on activities in her lab, the Fluid Dynamics of Disease Transmission Laboratory.

What does fluid fragmentation have to do with agriculture? Fluid fragmentation is the fundamental physics that governs droplet formation from bulk of fluids. Bourouiba specializes in investigating how such a process controls the ways pathogens are encapsulated, emitted, and transported in droplets into the environment, and then infiltrated beyond the immediate area of a contaminated plant or field. Bourouiba relates this fluid mechanics to ways rain droplets could distribute and disperse pathogens from one plant to another in a crop field. Implications are not to ask the farmer to space planted crops farther apart, but instead exploit the inherent mechanical and surface properties of the crops to create natural defenses around the plant, such as planting complementary crops as buffers, or specifically optimizing and tailoring irrigation and spray drops to the crop's mechanical properties to minimize crop disease and foodborne disease amplification.

Extending medicine and materials research to agriculture

Mid-week sessions featured a thought-provoking bioengineering and biomaterials presentation about medicine and agriculture by Robert S. Langer, the David H. Koch Institute Professor; professor of chemical engineering, biological engineering, and mechanical engineering; and head of the Langer Lab. His lab's research focuses on innovation in drug development, nanoscale drug delivery, novel biomaterials, tissue engineering, and stem cells.

Early in his research career studying the chemistry and biology of cartilage, Langer was frustrated with the lack of an effective delivery system to diffuse large molecules slowly through polymers. As an early leader of cross-disciplinary study, he eventually set out to create a solution himself, which he later patented and led to the health care industry's commercial application of long acting microsphere injection technology. It was the first in a series of 1,100 patents Langer has received and filed, and led him to extend his microscale research and its analogs to medicine, pharmaceuticals, and biotechnology innovation.

"Chemistry and biology used to be separate professions, but now researchers need both skills and a broader science and engineering understanding to solve many of the world's most critical problems," he said. "The program was great and I really liked the students' enthusiasm."

"I had no idea that biochemistry would have such an impact, or materials study would have such an impact, in agriculture," said class participant Ambre Soubiran of France, who recently quit her investment banking career and enrolled in the short program to advance her interest in agriculture and animal feed.

"I have a master's degree in theoretical mathematics, but have never applied it to science," she said. "It was pretty amazing to see all the implications of research being done in the medical world and in the materials world that could be applied to agriculture."

Langer's talk was followed by Roger Beachy, chief scientific officer of Indigo Agriculture and the first director of USDA NIFA. Indigo is a U.S.-based startup focusing on microbiology in agriculture. Specifically, the company is working to identify missing microbiomes that occur within plants – such as those that make them resilient to environmental stresses like heat or drought – and then reintroduce the microbiome through a seed treatment that makes the plant healthier and, ultimately, improves the yield. This solution was created based on insights made through years of discovery and research on the human microbiome.

Indigo's solutions are designed to help farmers sustainably feed the planet: "Modern seeds have [far fewer] microbes, with less diversity, compared to their ancestors," said Beachy. "We are working to restore this lost function and are planning to release our first commercial product this year."

Low- and high-tech ingenuity

Benedetto Marelli, the Paul M. Cook Career Development Assistant Professor in CEE, and Professor John Lienhard, director of the Jameel World Water and Food Security lab (J-WAFS) at MIT, rounded out this day's sessions. Marelli presented on nature-inspired materials for use in agriculture and food preservation, and Lienhard gave an overview of his organization's leadership role in solving agricultural challenges using low and high tech strategies.

Marelli questioned if the class knew how structural biopolymers such as collagen, silk, and keratin – the building materials of life – are made. He answered that material, structure, form, and function are all correlated, and grow by controlled assembly. The color of butterfly wings, for example, are produced by light passing through the wing's nanostructure and getting trapped in photonic crystals to create different hues. This understanding of materials and engineering informs the work Marelli does in his lab, including using silk fibroins to make a bioprinted label that, when placed on a package of meat, changes color to detect and warn of contamination, and using an edible coating of silk that can be applied to highly perishable food to preserve it longer. Later that day, Marelli took the attendees on a tour of his lab, including access to his control group, and experimental, strawberries coated with the silk preservation material.

The presenters were clear that low-tech solutions, including agriculture policy and implementation strategies, are just as important as high-tech solutions to transform agricultural development. Many of these low-tech examples were highlighted by J-WAFS director John Lienhard. The lab – named for Abdul Latif Jameel, father of CEE alumnus Mohammed Abdul Latif Jameel '78 – was established in 2014 as an Institute-wide effort to bring MIT's expertise to the challenge of the world's diverse needs for water and food in the context of population growth, climate change, urbanization, and development. Lienhard spoke about the many ways J-WAFS is helping mitigate global food waste and food borne illness; preparing countries for the impacts of climate change on food security; utilizing management best practices and economics to turn nascent ideas into new businesses; developing more productive food systems and processes; and extending water supplies to the underserved.

In addition to a range of policy, business, and economic solutions, J-WAFS supports research and commercialization around advanced technologies. For instance, Lienhard mentioned J-WAFS' support of an innovative water sampling technique that allows faster water testing in remote areas by using dry sample preservation. Just like the method used today for fast and efficient blood testing, a drop of water on a card is dried and mailed to a central facility for analysis. No need to lug a liter of water long distances and wait for water quality professionals to test it. Lienhard added that a cross-disciplinary team is working on the design as well as implementation strategies for the new system.

Other technologies J-WAFS is supporting include the development of sensors for food and water quality, and separation technologies for water purification.

A model approach

The sessions' final days featured many other scientists and engineers, including the course co-leaders Buehler and Schuster.

Buehler spoke of the current and potential role of new materials in agriculture, including the use of computation in materials design for agricultural applications. Buehler explained his research is inspired by nature, such as plant materials, which can teach us lessons about new designs that improve on nature. He uses a modeling approach to experimentation which means he investigates what he can do with a minimal sequencing pattern and nature's building blocks such as proteins to make something new and improved. For example, to optimize a microstructure composite for toughness and strength, he might use computer software to simulate and make it right in his lab or office using 3-D printing in about 30 minutes – a process and time scale unfathomable just a decade ago.

"There are a lot of things humans can do that nature can't do, but to do it, you need models," Buehler said. "We try to synthesize material creation from the bottom up instead of the traditional top-down approach. How does a material work? How does it break? How can we use the same chemical components to optimize the structure or create a new material with a different function? These are questions whose answers provide deep insight and potential for innovative engineering solutions to agricultural problems with examples in seed coatings, synthetic soils, thin films as barriers for disease, or better products such as bioproduced fuels."

Schuster, an Ohio-native and a product of five generations of farmers, presented on spatial design of experiments and the use of relevant data. He promotes the use of advanced technology such as drones, robotics, and remote sensing to provide data and statistics for modeling and analysis for agricultural inputs. But it is still difficult to capture all the information necessary to determine plant health, he said. Cameron Dryden of AOA Xinetics, a Northrop Grumman business unit, echoed his concerns: Is there invasive species or mold growing underground? Does the soil lack nitrogen?

"The new grand challenge of this generation is seeing through the ground and the ocean with images and communicating that information quickly and in a way that's easily interpreted," said Dryden.

"Viewing agriculture through the lens of materials science and mechanical engineering is a unique perspective," said Schuster, "but one which could have significant implications for innovation and the environment. Further, as we enter a new age of mapping with precision, we'll be able to learn more about the root system of plants and organize the information to always know what's happening out of sight."

CEE research scientist and alumnus Abel Sanchez highlighted ways digital location information – included in approximately 80 percent of all data – can enhance scientific research. He offered examples of professional sports, transportation, logistics, robotics, and augmented reality to illustrate its use and benefits.

"Many industries are leveraging this location intelligence, open web standards, and powerful, intuitive platforms to discover and predict key insights," he said. "Fortunately, the rising levels of abstraction in spatial technologies is enabling optimization of operational performance, higher farming yields, strategic investments, and everyday decisions for everyone."

CEE Assistant Professor Ben Kocar, the final speaker of the week, got straight to the point about biogeochemistry: "Soils are amazingly complex," he said. "They possess a diverse array of physical, chemical, and biological characteristics that impart overarching controls on the fate of toxic elements like arsenic and mercury, and the availability of nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus for plant growth. However, many of these processes are poorly understood and lay hidden beneath our feet."

He studies if and how soils might be serving as a sink for pollutants like atmospheric methane or carbon released as bacteria breaks down soil organic matter. Since this often occurs at a microscopic level, he has developed a new sampling device capable of measuring methane concentrations within a volume about the size of a grain of sand. He encourages others to develop similar devices to measure micro-scale soil processes that may illuminate how important nutrients and chemicals behave in soils.

Plant the seeds; watch them grow

This inaugural short program offered a unique interdisciplinary experience, bringing together industry speakers and MIT faculty from many related areas. It covered many aspects of agriculture, innovation, and the environment, from the big picture and motivations – including fundamental science as well as environmental engineering considerations – to specific topics such as water-soil interactions, biomaterials in agriculture and environment, and foliar disease. Techniques studied included computing and big data, analytics, sensing and data assimilation, risk modeling, microbial dynamics, genomics, and synthetic biology.

Neither the course directors nor the participants were quite sure what to expect as they launched the new program last month. But given the initial response from instructors and students, it seems that many new opportunities will grow from this initial program.