Optimizing genetics to advance controlled environment agriculture – AgriLife Today

Texas A&M AgriLife is adding essential expertise to help guide future innovations in controlled environment horticulture as the emerging field continues to develop.

Krishna Bhattarai, Ph.D.  in a warehouse with plants opposite.  He is wearing a gray shirt
Krishna Bhattarai, Ph.D., brings plant breeding expertise that expands Texas A&M AgriLife’s controlled environment horticulture program. (Gretchen Midkiff/Texas A&M AgriLife)

Krishna Bhattarai, Ph.D., Texas A&M AgriLife Plant Breeder Researcher for Controlled Environment Horticulture and Assistant Professor, has joined the Texas A&M College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Department of Horticultural Sciences. His research uses genetics and genomics to develop new cultivars of horticultural crops specifically for controlled environment production.

Bhattarais research will be conducted at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Dallas.

Strategic hiring for controlled environment horticulture

Amit Dhingra, Ph.D., head of the Department of Horticultural Sciences, said Bhattarai’s hiring is a big step forward for the controlled environment horticulture program. He said technological advances have driven much of the momentum in the field’s boom, and Bhattarai’s arrival and focus on optimizing plant genetics in these systems comes at a critical time.

Dhingra said he believes the next step in the evolution of controlled environment horticulture is cohesion between plant genetics and the growth systems they support. The idea is not only to optimize yields, but also to focus on other cultivar characteristics such as nutrient density and growth habit, as well as aesthetics and taste.

Daniel Leskovar, Ph.D., director at the Dallas center, said Bhattarai’s hiring resulted from the strategic plan and vision of the controlled environment horticulture program at Texas A&M AgriLife.

His expertise in plant breeding and phenotyping tools will provide very valuable synergy to our growing multidisciplinary CEH programs at Texas A&M University, he said.

In particular, his expertise in plant breeding and genetics focused on the development of new fruit and vegetable cultivars with improved resource utilization, efficient traits, disease and abiotic stress resistance, and high nutritional quality and sensory will ultimately benefit consumers as well as growers of the controlled environment. and industry.

About the controlled environment program

The controlled environment program at the Dallas center includes small-area/urban horticulturists Joe Masabni, Ph.D., and Genhua Niu, Ph.D., both professors in the Department of Horticultural Sciences; Azlan Zahid, agricultural engineer from the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering and entomologist, Arash Kheirodin, Ph.D., in the Department of Entomology. The team also includes Shuyang Zhen, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Horticultural Sciences, College Station.

Dhingra said Bhattarai’s arrival brings significant expertise to the programs’ holistic approach, making Texas A&M an innovator and leader in the field.

Researchers in the controlled environment horticulture program are experimenting with plants in a variety of technologies that include older methods such as high tunnels and greenhouses and aquaponic and hydroponic systems.

They are also engaged in concepts such as precision agriculture that rely on innovative technologies such as remote sensing to collect a variety of data related to environmental and plant conditions. Sensor technology allows growers to incorporate other recent advances such as automation, robotics and artificial intelligence to manage plants.

The next frontier in controlled environment production of horticultural crops is plant genetics, Dhingra said. We hope to increase efficiency, sustainability and profitability for controlled environment growers by harnessing the genetic potential in plant material so that crops perform at optimal levels in these systems.

Rows of tomato plants in a greenhouse.
Tomato plants in a greenhouse at the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center in Uvalde. Bhattarai will be based at the Dallas Center, but his expertise in genetics will be linked to ongoing controlled environment horticulture projects around the state. (Sam Craft/Texas A&M AgriLife)

Cultivar development research to drive innovation

Bhattarai said he is aware of only one other plant breeder who conducts public research devoted to controlled environment production.

Much research has been done on the structural programming and software side of controlled environment horticulture, but breeding plants specifically for those systems is lagging, he said. Cultivar development for controlled environment production is an area where there are many opportunities to explore and contribute.

Bhattarai’s previous research covered a wide range of horticultural crops, including flowers, fruits and vegetables.

Resistance to bacterial leaf spot was the focus of his research as a graduate research assistant in the tomato breeding program at North Carolina State University. The disease is problematic for tomato production in the open field.

In 2014, while a master’s student at the University of Florida, his focus shifted to ornamentals, including powdery mildew prevention in cut flowers such as Gerbera daisies.

Bhattarai’s research took another turn as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis. Instead of breeding for plant disease resistance, he began analyzing the genomic regions of strawberries in search of improved flavor and aroma.

Since I have experience in all three of these important commodities, I thought I could do some good research that could impact plant breeding for controlled environment production in Texas, he said. We’ve seen tremendous growth in controlled environment manufacturing in Texas, and that makes Texas A&M an ideal place to be.

Creation of horticultural crop options

Controlled environment horticulture is emerging as a sustainable production method that can complement traditional field production. As agriculture faces the potential impacts of climate change, water scarcity, land fragmentation and other challenges, systems that optimize resources, operate within small footprints and are not subject to the whims of Mother Nature continue to gain momentum.

Bhattarai said Texas is quickly becoming a leader in controlled environment production, which puts Texas A&M AgriLife in a position to help the industry and producers navigate the challenges. Breeding plants to optimize their water and fertilizer uptake is a focus, but he is also looking at genes that determine plant structure and flowering to maximize yields in limited space.

According to grower surveys, he said many of these systems are dedicated to leafy green production, but Bhattarai wants to expand grower options and crop diversity.

Growers need to be profitable, and the ability to harness traits in cultivars for these target environments will be a critical part of the industry’s evolution, he said. The genetic side of innovation in this field will optimize technological innovations in these systems.

Optimizing crop value for growers

Using genetic tools to identify and exploit traits for specific growing systems will drive system optimization and industry sustainability, Bhattarai said.

For example, in hydroponic systems, plants do not need high root biomass because nutrients are readily available. Bhattarai will select for cultivars that produce higher volumes of consumable products, whether fruit, shoots or leaves, for hydroponic growers. Genetics affecting inflorescence can also be selected to optimize the ability of systems to automate crop harvesting.

Identifying and expressing plant genes that pave the way for better flavors, better nutrition and other distinct characteristics will help controlled-environment producers grow premium crops, Bhattarai said. Plant breeding programs will also help create high-value fruits and vegetables that are marketable.

The idea is to give controlled environment growers options and optimize those options, Bhattarai said.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

#Optimizing #genetics #advance #controlled #environment #agriculture #AgriLife #Today
Image Source : agrilifetoday.tamu.edu

Leave a Comment