Case Study

Initiative towards the development of improved agriculture and use of technology

The GCRF funds also supported the purchase of a Photosync device at Khon Kaen University

1. What is your research about?

Climate change and increasing global population is intensifying the need to find suitable crop plants for sustainable food and fuel production for future generations. Drought conditions and reduced water availability severely impact plant productivity and are considered a global threat to world food security. Stomata, tiny openings on the leaf surface allow gas exchange and their function play a central role in determining the amount of carbon gained per unit water lost, known as plant water use efficiency. Stomata consequently have significant implications for crop yields, as well as global hydrological and carbon cycles. Stomata must ensure an appropriate balance between CO2 demands for photosynthesis and water loss through transpiration by correlating stomatal conductance with mesophyll photosynthetic rates. I am studying the underlying mechanisms and signals that promote this relationship. I am employing various imaging and phenotyping technologies and correlate plant images to photosynthesis efficiency, and hence crop production. 

Project at KKU (Thailand)

Almost half of rice-growing areas in Thailand are in the north-eastern part where KKU is located. Recently, rice yield per area in this part of the country seriously suffered from climate change problems leading to erratic rainfalls, prolonged droughts and soil salinity, all of which directly affect photosynthetic capacity. My group has been working with colleagues at KKU on plant photosynthesis and phenotyping technologies which can be applied to modulate crop management under stress conditions, and also in breeding programs with the objectives of screening for rice genotypes which are more efficient in photosynthesis and hence more tolerant to stresses.

Project at VIT in India

India faces a constant challenge in terms of lack of food availability and security as its current food production is not able to meet up the demands of a large population especially the vulnerable groups like children under the age of five, adolescents, pregnant mothers and population below the poverty line. Therefore, identification of factors affecting the optimization of photosynthetic efficiency is the need of the hour to initiate efficient agricultural practices to enhance the production of biomass and promote health and wellbeing of the population. In this project my group conducted novel research focusing on the role of pigment in plant photosynthetic efficiency that could not only be exploited for generating crop plants with greater productivity but can be used for commercial pigment production - a growing market in India.

2. What activities did your GCRF@Essex funding support and how do your GCRF funded projects support your wider research plans?

Project at KKU (Thailand)

Prof. Piyada Theerakulpisut at KKU and I received a Newton Fund Institutional Links Grant in 2018. This grant supported a joint research project on the physiology of rice under salt stress, plant physiology training workshops at KKU and staff travel in both directions. The funding from the Essex GCRF@Essex fund further strengthened our research collaborations providing support for a technical assistant to help analyse data gathered during the Newton Fund project.

The funds also supported the purchase of a Photosync device by KKU which will enable spectral measurements from field grown rice under salt stress conditions in Thailand to support data collected in the laboratory. These data will all feed into joint publications. 

Project at VIT (India)

The funding from the GCRF@Essex fund further strengthened research collaborations between the groups by providing support for a technical assistant with a joint review publication between Prof Siva Ramamoorthy and Prof Tracy Lawson, and to conduct research in the laboratory to generate new data providing further preliminary work to support future joint funding opportunities.

The funding enabled us to collect preliminary data on the impact of altered light capture on plant photosynthetic efficiency in transgenic plants produced at Essex which have altered pigment content. Photosynthesis is essential for all plant productivity and whilst light is essential for this process, too much light can damage the plant reducing photosynthetic efficiency. The transgenic plants have been produced with the inclusion of orange carotenoid protein (OCP) found in algae. It is reported that this protein protects algae from fluctuation in high light and therefore we carried out several experiments to test if this was also the case in higher plants.

Prof. Piyada Theerakulpisut, Khon Kaen University and Prof. Tracy Lawson, University of Essex)
Prof. Piyada Theerakulpisut, Khon Kaen University and Prof. Tracy Lawson, University of Essex

3. How is your project benefitting the countries involved and which Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are being addressed?

Project at KKU (Thailand)

Crop access to water is one of the major agronomic challenges currently facing Thailand. Declining farm incomes, reduced paddy production and on-going drought can lead to food price rises and political tension as local authorities attempt to manage unauthorised water withdrawal from canals and groundwater systems. The 2015-16 drought was estimated to have led to a 2-billion-dollar loss to the economy. It has been predicted that continued loss to rice production through prolonged drought will increase food prices and reduce the ability of household to purchase key staples. Reduced rainfall patterns from both El Nino events and with the changes driven by global climate along with the problems of high salt content in soils means that producing rice varieties that can tolerate high salt or reduce water demands will be a significant benefit to the small holding farmers as well as the country’s overall economy. The data collected previously (and in the future from field experiments) will help to screen for phenotyping traits that will be of benefit to rice breeders to produce rice varieties that are more tolerant to the changing water and salt status of current field environment. Our work therefore directly address the key challenges of sustainable food and income for low-income farmers and addresses SDG1 (no poverty) and SDG2 (Zero Hunger).

Project at VIT (India)

As per the SDG India Index Baseline Report 2018, India’s SDG Index Score ranges from 35 to 80 for States and 38 to 72 for Union Territories for the goal of Zero Hunger. Therefore, scientific approaches including manipulating plant performance are needed if India is to increase agricultural productivity and meet the goal of Zero Hunger by 2030. Moreover, India’s current annual agricultural produce of wheat, rice and coarse grains is 2,509kg/Ha, with an aim of double production by 2030.

A detailed understanding of how plants cope with different environmental factors provide novel targets for extrapolation and exploitation for agricultural practices including some of the key crops in India. Therefore, this project enabled the partners to collect preliminary data to put together a collaborative grant outline for future collaboration.

In addition, an insight into the changes in concentration and proportion of photosynthetic pigments with changing environment would be beneficial for biotechnologists to enhance the production of these pigments by alternative methods like plant tissue culture and molecular biology (agrobacterium mediated gene transfer) under controlled favourable conditions. Gains in knowledge regarding optimization of photosynthetic pigments like chlorophyll, carotenoids and anthocyanin could extrapolate their use to industrial sector as food colourants and additives, textiles and cosmetics adding to an already thriving industry in India. The impact and benefits of such work will be of value to academics, industrial biotechnologist and smaller holder farmers as well as the wider community that will benefit from changes to crop productivity as outlined above. The project addressed SDG 2(Zero Hunger).

4. You are closely collaborating with colleagues in Thailand and India. How did you find your collaborators?

I was introduced to both colleagues by their students who were visiting the University of Essex with a scholarship. I have greatly enjoyed working with my colleagues in both Thailand and India and looking for ways to extend and develop these collaborations further. I have written two reviews with colleagues in India and we are all actively exploring options to obtain further funding to continue our research efforts. I am currently in the process of writing up a research manuscript with my Thailand collaborators – and we hope to submit this for a special issue later this year. I have also introduced my colleagues to a new investigator in the Essex plant group to try and extend our joint research activities between Essex and KKU. 

5. Are there any challenges when pursuing this international and collaborative project?

There are always challenges when conducting research with collaborators in different locations and these are only enhanced when in different countries. This is due to differences in ideas, focus, techniques and capabilities as well as the fact that we operate in time zones, the need to travel large distances with equipment. And when this travel was restricted due to the Covid pandemic the difficulty in discussing plants and research over zoom. Furthermore differences in cultures, language and expectation can add to some of these challenges – however in both cases we communicated fully and worked well with each other to overcome all these challenges. I greatly enjoyed both collaborations and believe that we have not only established a research relationship but also a friendship.

A workshop was held at Khon Kaen University, Thailand in January 2020)
A workshop was held at Khon Kaen University, Thailand in January 2020