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Understanding the Social Network of Plants

Recent estimates state that the supply of food should increase by 50% in the next 40 years to accommodate the changes in demographics and eating habits. We are at a remarkable juncture where (i) the price of oil and nitrogen-based fertilizers is expected to increase, (ii) the long term availability of phosphorus for fertilizers is in doubt, (iii) the erosion of soil is reducing yields, and (iv) climate change brings extreme weather that impacts crop survival and productivity.

This extraordinary challenge to feed the planet will require new insights in two areas of knowledge: the interactions of roots with soil, and the “communication” between organisms (plant/plant and plant/microorganism), especially at a network level.

We are creating experimental systems to conduct controlled studies on the growth of engineered networks of plants. This project will address fundamental questions about synergic and competitive interactions between plants, especially under stressful growth conditions that are meaningful to future agriculture in marginal soils.

The student will design and grow network of plants with different connectivities and explore how the plant community tolerates stresses (e.g., drought) as a function of the connectivity.

Program mentor:  Ludovico Cademartiri, Assistant Professor, Materials Science and Engineering, Chemical and Biological Engineering, Iowa State University