Research Summary Improved Crop Resilience
Malia’s research develops high-throughput methods of phenotyping plants to identify natural variation in response to temperature stress and to learn about how plants interact with their environment.
The world population is expected to outpace agricultural productivity by the year 2050. To rise to this global challenge we need crops that are more nutritious and that produce more yield under increasingly variable climatic conditions. One approach to producing improved crops is to identify natural variation in both nutritional composition and abiotic stress response of plant populations. In particular, the Gehan lab focuses on mining natural variation for improved resistance to temperature stress, which will help to improve crop productivity, and move towards answering the basic question of how plants perceive temperature. Interactions of plant genotype and the environment (especially stressful environments) are dynamic and can produce a multitude of phenotypes, therefore the Gehan lab also focuses on improved methods of measuring plant phenotype.
Improved measurement of plant phenotypes
To measure natural variation in temperature stress resistance, we need non-destructive tools that can quickly and accurately measure a plant phenotype over time. Therefore, the Gehan Lab also focuses on developing new tools and computational methods for plant phenotyping. The Lab is particularly interested in developing low-cost and open-source tools for high-throughput phenotyping so that more researchers can have access to them.
Plant systems we focus on
The Gehan lab works on grasses Brachypodium distachyon and Setaria viridis because they are closely related to important food and bioenergy crops, but have the advantage of being models plant systems. Brachypodium distachyon is a C3 grass closely related to wheat, barley , rye, and rice. Setaria viridis is a C4 grass that is closely related to maize, sorghum, miscanthus, and switchgrass. The Gehan lab is also very excited to start work on Chenopodium quinoa, as a model system for plant stress resilience. Quinoa is delicious, nutritious, and varieties are reported to have high tolerance to diverse abiotic stresses. There is also quite a bit of phenotypic diversity in terms of color, architecture, and development, which makes it an interesting model for plant phenotyping.
Outreach is an important component of the Gehan lab. We use phenotyping as a way of introducing students of all ages to plant and computer science. A key technology that has helped to make this possible are small, low-cost microcomputers, like the Raspberry Pi. The Gehan lab regularly uses Raspberry Pi computers and camera modules to image plants for research and we use the same set-ups in phenotyping workshops with students and teachers.