These Funders Believe That Better Roots Are Possible, Leading to Higher Crop Yields

It really doesn’t get more rudimentary than this. Want to make the world a better place, and end starvation and poverty? Just grow more food, dummy. For all the buzz there is about how hunger is a “distribution problem,” there’s no question that some problems could be solved by just making crops more productive. And that’s exactly what the National Science Foundation, the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund are doing. They’re starting at the very beginning, the roots, using analytics to study how real in-the-field conditions affect root development and nutrient absorption.

Related: Here's What Howard Buffett is Doing About Food Insecurity in the U.S.

Of course, the connection between food security and roots is hardly new. The Great Famine in Ireland was caused by a root disease in potatoes, and other root diseases have also affected crop harvests in devastating ways. 

The flip side, though, is that improvements related to roots can yield big dividends. But the first step is a better understanding of these surprisingly complex systems. 

Though imaging of root systems has previously been restricted to the lab, a new tool enables researchers to take detailed digital photographs of roots in the field. “In the lab, you are just seeing part of the process of root growth,” said Dr. Alexander Bucksch, a postdoctoral fellow in Georgia Tech’s School of Biology and School of Interactive Computing. “We went out to the field to see the plants under realistic growing conditions.” 

Those images were then analyzed to study root diameter and density. It’s a great tool, one with the potential to open up new avenues of plant breeding. “Now we can measure entire root systems for thousands of plants to give geneticists the information they need to search for genes with the best characteristics,” Bucksch said. 

Drop in the bucket, right? Well yes, but I did warn you that this was rudimentary, didn’t I? Though most of the support is coming from the National Science Foundation’s Plant Genome Research and BREAD Programs, others are involved in this project, which is being jointly undertaken by teams at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Penn State University.

For Buffett, it’s clearly an extension of the foundation’s anti-hunger work, coming as usual from an unmistakably agricultural mindset. This kind of work is exactly the kind of thing to pique Buffett’s interest, though he’s said before that hunger is not a problem of insufficient food supply.

The Burroughs Wellcome Fund’s involvement is more interesting. Lately, that foundation has been getting more into interdisciplinary giving, and this could be an extension of that. The fund seems to be freeing itself to go after brilliance, wherever it's found, and clearly, there’s brilliance here in a Georgia corn field.