World’s largest vertical farm to join Dubai skyline

Dubai is known for its breathtaking and often inventive architecture, which draws tourists from all over the world. Now, it’s adding one more attraction to the list: the Earth’s largest vertical farm.

The planned project is designed to take up only 130,000 square feet, while having the same production output as 900 farmed acres.

It should also allow the farmers to grow greens using only a fraction of the water required by a cultivated field – and, if all goes to plan, no pesticides or herbicides.

“Today’s announcement is an important milestone for the Emirates Group, for Dubai, and for the UAE,” Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum told the Daily Mail. “This investment to build and operate the world’s largest vertical farming facility aligns with the UAE’s drive for more agricultural self-sufficiency, a vision which began with the late HH Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the UAE’s founding father.”

The vertical farm is the latest step in the United Arab Emirates’ work to become more agriculturally self-sufficient.

The farm – estimated to cost $40 million – is a joint project between Emirates Flight Catering and Crop One Holdings, based in the U.S. The first crops will be to feed customers of the 105 airlines and 25 airport lounges served by the catering company, the Mail reported.

The vertical farm will rely on hydroponics technology to produce approximately three tons of leafy greens each day. Hydroponics can grow some plants with little need for soil or sunlight.

“As one of the world’s largest airline catering operations, Emirates Flight Catering constantly looks at innovation, and ways to improve our productivity, product and service quality,” Saeed Mohammed, the company’s CEO, told the UK news site.

The company expects to have the vertical farm in operation by December 2019.

By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer

Destructive insects grow wings after cues from their host plant

A new study led by Washington State University (WSU) has identified the underlying mechanism that drives short or long wing development in the brown planthopper, one of the most destructive rice pests in the world. The experts have discovered that the quality of the host plant is responsible for wing growth and migratory behavior among these insects.

According to WSU Professor Laura Lavine, wing size determines whether the planthoppers feed locally or migrate over long distances to reach new rice plants.

“It’s all about the amount of glucose, or sugar, in the plant,” said Lavine. “Rice plants with higher glucose levels are older and dying. That increase in glucose causes adolescent brown planthoppers to develop into the long-winged adults. The plant really is telling the insect how to grow.”

There is a shift in the ratio of sugars to amino acids over the course of a rice plant’s  life. Young rice plants are ideal for feeding insects because they have relatively low glucose levels and provide plenty of nutrition. With no need to seek out additional food sources, the brown planthoppers grow short wings and the females grow large ovaries.

On the other hand, planthoppers that feed on aging plants are exposed to rising levels of glucose. They must prepare to migrate, developing long wings and smaller ovaries.

“It’s a one-time decision,” said Lavine. “If the decision to stay and reproduce or migrate and fly away is incorrect, the brown planthopper is in trouble. Grow short wings when long wings are needed to move away and they die. Grow long wings when they could manage with short wings and they’re leaving a healthy food source and have to needlessly search for another home.”

Levine explained that the insects cannot change their body structure once they reach adulthood. The researchers hope that the findings of this study will lead to the development of a technique to manipulate planthoppers to grow long wings.

“The results of this study will hopefully allow scientists a new way to figure out how to trick the brown planthopper into developing into the wrong form so that they die before they become pests,” said Lavine.

The researchers were surprised to find that glucose was the sole factor driving wing growth among brown planthoppers.

“It has been difficult to isolate environmental signals that influence insect morphology and behavior,” said Lavine. “But it’s not for the brown planthopper. The plant’s glucose level is the signal on whether they stay or go.”

The study is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: Xinda Lin, Jiliang University

Crowdfunding results in first ever fern genome sequencing

In an unprecedented study, researchers have analyzed the full DNA sequence of a fern. The team was so determined to examine the genome of the floating water fern, Azolla filiculoides, that they set up an online campaign to raise money for the project.

Study first author Fay-Wei Li is a professor at the Boyce Thompson Institute. Professor Li started out on his mission to inspect the Azolla genome when he was a graduate student at Duke University under the advisement of Professor Kathleen Pryer, who had been trying to get the project funded for almost 20 years.

The duo created an online campaign on a crowdfunding site called Experiment.com.

This strategy proved to be so successful that the project received 147 percent of its goal, bringing in $22,160 from 123 supporters.

The campaign also led to an offer from the Beijing Genomics Institute (BGI) to provide all of the sequencing for the project free of charge.

Professor Li explained why the researchers found this particular project to be so intriguing.

“Azolla has a really cool biology and evolutionary history,” said Professor Li. “Azolla engages in symbiosis with cyanobacteria for nitrogen fixation, and for this reason it has been used as a green manure for rice paddies in Asia for hundreds of years.

The analysis revealed that Azolla lacks the genes needed for the more widespread arbuscular mycorrhizal and root-nodule symbioses, which the water ferns do not create. The ferns were found to contain several genes specific to their interaction with Nostoc, the cyanobiont, which had been previously sequenced.

“Now that we have genomes available for both the fern and cyanobacterium, there is great promise for tapping into the secrets of this natural biofertilizer that may help lead to future sustainable agricultural practices,” said Professor Pryer.

The researchers were excited to discover the origin of an important insecticidal gene in ferns. The gene has been recently isolated and transferred to cotton plants, where it protects against insects.

“When you walk into a forest, it’s usually very striking to find that ferns show little to no sign of insect damage,” said Professor Li.

The insecticidal gene was found to be unique to ferns, which explains why most other plants are not nearly as resilient. The experts also found that the gene was most likely transferred from a bacterium.

“In other words, the ferns’ ability to fend off insect herbivores is likely due to a ‘genetic gift’ from bacteria,” said Professor Li.

With the extra project funding, the team also sequenced a second fern, Salvinia cucullata. The analysis of these two genomes has answered many questions and has also raised some new ones, so the researchers plan to continue sequencing ferns.

“We are going fernatic to sequence more ferntastic genomes!” said Professor Li. “As part of the 10K Plant Genomes Project collaboration we are working with BGI to strategically sample the fern tree of life for genome sequencing. Currently we have about 10 fern species in the sequencing pipeline.”

“The endorsement and confirmation by the public and the media that our project was of significance was a fantastic outreach and learning experience for us. It is very reaffirming to find out first-hand that people do care about pure science!”

The study is published in the journal Nature Plants.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer
Image Credit: Laura Dijkhuizen

New game-changing instrument will measure global plant water use

Heat stress and water shortages present challenges to the agricultural industry, especially in regions where plants are more vulnerable to extreme climate changes.

Plants require few things to thrive; sunshine, air, water, and nutrients. Like humans who sweat when the weather gets too hot as a way to cool down, plants have similar transpiration tricks to keep on growing.

Plants transpire water vapor through their pores to cool down and some plants even close their pores during the hottest parts of the day to conserve water.

Understanding how plants across the world conserve and use water would not only help with water management and agriculture but would also allow researchers to know which plants are under stress.

Longer, hotter, dry seasons and heat waves are impacting many regions, and as climate change continues to reshape our planet’s ecosystems, some plants could die off and some could be more resilient to changes.

But now, a new instrument called ECOSTRESS (Ecosystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station) could help monitor and improve plant health around the world as well as optimize agricultural water use.

The mission of ECOSTRESS, according to NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), is to measure plant temperature from the International Space Station which will reveal how plants all around the world are using water.

Current satellites are limited in their measurements of the Earth’s surface, and no satellite in orbit is able to take global transpiration measurements. Some satellites can only take measurements at the same time every day because of their orbit, and some that are geostationary are too far away to accurately measure transpiration.

What makes ECOSTRESS such a game changer is that it will be attached to the International Space Station.

“The space station opens the door to do new science,” Simon Hook, the principal investigator for ECOSTRESS, told JPL News. “You’re in low Earth orbit, so you can produce detailed images, but at different times of day, so you can look at the diurnal cycle.”

By measuring plant temperature, the ECOSTRESS team will be able to detect areas where plants are under stress because they are not able to stay cool or conserve water even though they appear green and healthy.

This will provide enough warning to intervene and save the plants before it’s too late, according to NASA JPL.

Besides taking incredibly accurate measurements of plant water use, ECOSTRESS can help researchers better understand the world’s water and carbon cycles as climate change continues to take hold.

“Extreme weather is in the forecast for a warming world and being better able to manage water in a time of increasing water scarcity or stress is really critical,” said Woody Turner, the program scientists for biological diversity at NASA headquarters. “We have to grow food regardless, so it’s best if we do it efficiently.”

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: Andreas Levers, CC BY-NC 2.0, NASA JPL

New type of photosynthesis discovered that uses infrared light

Scientists at Imperial College London have uncovered a previously unknown type of photosynthesis that uses light from the infrared spectrum instead of red light. This unexpected discovery was found among blue-green algae in low-light areas of Yellowstone National Park and coastal Australia.

Professor Bill Rutherford from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial is the lead author of the study.

“The new form of photosynthesis made us rethink what we thought was possible,” said Professor Rutherford. “It also changes how we understand the key events at the heart of standard photosynthesis. This is textbook changing stuff.”

For many years, it has been assumed that red light was needed for photosynthesis, a process where light is converted into energy using the green pigment chlorophyll-a to absorb the light.

The investigation, which was focused on cyanobacteria under infrared light, demonstrated that another pigment called chlorophyll-f can also perform photosynthesis under the right conditions.

Study co-author Dr. Andrea Fantuzzi is in the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial.

“Finding a type of photosynthesis that works beyond the red limit changes our understanding of the energy requirements of photosynthesis,” said Dr. Fantuzzi. “This provides insights into light energy use and into mechanisms that protect the systems against damage by light.”

In addition to transforming our scientific understanding of life on Earth, the new insight will also transform the way that experts search for life beyond this planet. According to the experts, the research could help to develop ways of growing crops in low-light conditions as well.

Peter Burlinson is an expert from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which supported the study.

“This is an important discovery in photosynthesis, a process that plays a crucial role in the biology of the crops that feed the world,” said Burlinson.

“Discoveries like this push the boundaries of our understanding of life and Professor Bill Rutherford and the team at Imperial should be congratulated for revealing a new perspective on such a fundamental process.”

The research is published in the journal Science.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Invasive plant that causes third-degree burns found in Virginia

At least 30 giant hogweed plants have been found in Virginia for the first time, prompting officials to warn that the weed can cause severe burns.

Giant hogweed is an invasive plant from the Caucasus area in West Asia, and although it was first planted for its aesthetic look, it’s sap can cause serious burns and blindness.

Virginia is now one of the few states in the US where the plant has been found, and it can grow over 14 feet tall with large white flower clusters that can reach 2 and a half feet in diameter.

The plant, also known as Heracleum mantegazzianum, has a watery sap that makes the skin extremely sensitive to the sun. Chemical compounds called photosensitizing furanocoumarins in the sap can cause phytophotodermatitis resulting in third-degree blisters and burns when the sap comes in contact with skin.

It’s advised to immediately wash the affected area and limit sun exposure for 48 hours after coming in contact with the plant because of how sensitive the skin is due to the sap.

It can also cause blindness as well, and healing from the burns can take years according to environmental officials in Virginia.

“Giant hogweed makes poison ivy look like a walk in the park,” said an official Facebook post from the Isle of Wight County where the plants were recently discovered.

The plant’s sap is so hazardous that it can only be handled with protective clothing and gloves. Mowing or cutting the plant only increases the risk of it spreading or growing back.

It has been listed as a noxious weed by the United States Department of Agriculture National Resources Conservation resources and has been found along West and East Coast states.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Dogs can detect deadly fungal disease in avocado trees

Dogs have a famously incredible sense of smell and can detect drugs, weapons, and even cancer cells.

But now, new research shows that dogs could be an asset to the avocado industry and detect early signs of disease in groves by sniffing laurel wilt disease in trees.

Laurel wilt disease is caused by the redbay ambrosia beetle, an invasive species native to Asia, and the beetles carry a fungus that can spread and infect host trees. The fungus prevents water from traveling throughout the tree which quickly kills it.

The disease has killed over 300 million laurel trees in the United States, and this has put a major strain on avocado trees.

Laurel wilt is affecting avocado harvests in South Florida, and there are concerns that the disease could spread to Mexico and California, causing even more devastation.

There is hope though, as a new study from Florida International University found that specially trained dogs can sniff early signs of the disease in avocado trees which could aid in preventing further infestation.

Dogs trained to sniff out certain scents are often used in law enforcement to locate drugs, and researchers found that scent-discriminating dogs could be trained to detect laurel wilt-disease.

For the study, the researchers conducted 229 trials where dogs detected laurel wilt disease, and out of those, only twelve involved false alerts.

The results of the research also showed that dogs would be well suited to detecting laurel wilt even in harsh climates such as the high heat and humidity that Florida is known for.

“It is the best ‘technology’ so far that can detect a diseased tree before external symptoms are visible,” said DeEtta Mills, one of the study’s authors. “The old saying that ‘dogs are man’s best friend’ reaches far beyond a personal bond with their handler and trainer. It is depicted in their excitement every day as they deploy to the groves. Man’s best friend may even help save an industry.”

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: DeEtta Mills

Like animals, plants also use camouflage to hide from predators

Camouflage is a tactic many associate with certain reptiles or birds, but a new study has shown that many plant species also use the same camouflage techniques that animals use for disguise.

Researchers from the University of Exeter and the Kunming Institute of Botany in China examined camouflage in plants in an effort to better understand the unique evolutionary processes at work.

The study was published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Plants use a variety of well-known camouflage tricks used in the animal kingdom, including background matching and masquerading itself to look like something else.

Some species of octopus and cuttlefish are experts in masquerade and can actually change the texture of their skin in order to look like other marine animals or objects.

A species of plant that uses masquerade camouflage is the Corydalis hemidicentra, with leaves that are the same color as the rocks around it, depending on where it grows.

“These plants are a wonderful example of how camouflage can be adapted for different habitats,” said Yang Niu of the University of Exeter, first author of the study. “It seems that plants like these know how to make the right colors by mixing a few types of pigments. Those individuals with worse color matching might have higher risk of being eaten.”

Other camouflage techniques that plants use are disruptive coloration, where markings are used to create the illusion of a false edge, and decoration, which involves a plant covering itself with materials from the environment like sand to hide obvious features.

“It is clear that plants do more than entice pollinators and photosynthesize with their colors – they hide in plain sight from enemies too,” said Martin Stevens, an author of the study. “We now need to discover just how important a role camouflage has in the ecology and evolution of plants.”

One limiting factor for plants who employ camouflage tactics may be that changing colors decreases photosynthesis because chlorophyll is green.

The researchers note that further studies of plant camouflage could reveal important evolutionary insights.

“Animal camouflage has provided scientists with arguably the best examples of evolution in action,” said Stevens. It has been widely studied since the first pioneers of evolutionary biology, but relatively little research has been done into plant camouflage. Plants give us a fascinating parallel way of understanding how evolution works.”

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: Yang Niu

Bees can recognize flowers by their unique scented patterns

A new study from the University of Bristol has revealed that bumblebees can distinguish between different types of flowers by studying the unique arrangement of their scents.

Flowers go to great lengths to attract bees and other pollinators, using visual signals such as color patterns or lines to guide them to their nectar and speed up the pollination process.

Flowers also have different scented patterns across their surfaces. For example, the center of a flower smells differently than the edges of its petals. Researchers have now demonstrated that bumblebees can tell flowers apart by recognizing this specific layout.

“If you look at a flower with a microscope, you can often see that the cells that produce the flower’s scent are arranged in patterns,” said study lead author Dr. Dave Lawson.

“By creating artificial flowers that have identical scents arranged in different patterns, we are able to show that this patterning might be a signal to a bee. For a flower, it’s not just smelling nice that’s important, but also where you put the scent in the first place.”

The researchers also found that, after the bees became familiar with a particular flower’s scented pattern, the bees preferred to visit unscented flowers that had a similar arrangement of visual spots on their surface.

“This is the equivalent of a human putting her hand in a bag to feel the shape of a novel object which she can’t see, and then picking out a picture of that object,” said Dr. Lawson. “Being able to mentally switch between different senses is something we take for granted, but it’s exciting that a small animal like a bee is also able to do something this abstract.”

Study co-author Professor Lars Chittka added, “We already knew that bees were clever, but we were really surprised by the fact that bees could learn invisible patterns on flowers – patterns that were just made of scent.”

“The scent glands on our flowers were either arranged in a circle or a cross, and bees had to figure out these patterns by using their feelers. But the most exciting finding was that, if these patterns are suddenly made visible by the experimenter, bees can instantly recognize the image that formerly was just an ephemeral pattern of volatiles in the air.”

Senior author Dr. Sean Rands explained that flowers often use a combination of color, texture, shape, and appealing scents to advertise to their pollinators.

“If bees can learn patterns using one sense (smell) and then transfer this to a different sense (vision), it makes sense that flowers advertise in lots of ways at the same time, as learning one signal will mean that the bee is primed to respond positively to different signals that they have never encountered,” said Dr. Rands. “Advertising agencies would be very excited if the same thing happened in humans.”

The study is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Warmer temperatures will threaten corn availability

A new study led by the University of Washington has confirmed the theory that higher temperatures associated with global warming will lead to smaller yields of corn across the world by the end of the century.

The researchers also found that the variability of corn yields from year to year will increase the likelihood that high-producing regions will experience low yields simultaneously, leading to global shortages and high corn prices.

“Previous studies have often focused on just climate and plants, but here we look at climate, food and international markets,” said lead author Michelle Tigchelaar.

“We find that as the planet warms, it becomes more likely for different countries to simultaneously experience major crop losses, which has big implications for food prices and food security.”

Most people across the planet rely heavily on corn, which is the most widely grown crop in the world used for food, cooking oil, livestock feed, and fuel.

The United States, Brazil, Argentina, and the Ukraine account for 87 percent of the world’s corn exports. The probability that all four of these major exporters could have a bad year at the same time is currently at around zero percent.

However, if the world experiences an additional four degrees Celsius of warming – which is the amount that has been projected to happen by the end of this century – the chance that all four major exporting countries could simultaneously have a bad year increases to 86 percent.

“Yield variability is important for determining food prices in international markets, which in turn has big implications for food security and the ability of poor consumers to buy food,” said Tigchelaar.

The researchers combined data from global climate projections with data from corn-growth models to confirm the negative impact of warmer temperatures on corn crops.

“When people think about climate change and food, they often initially think about drought, but it’s really extreme heat that’s very detrimental for crops,” said Tigchelaar.

“Part of that is because plants grown at a higher temperature demand more water, but it’s also that extreme heat itself negatively affects crucial stages in plant development, starting with the flowering stage and ending with the grain-filling stage.”

The study revealed that warmer temperatures will severely decrease average maize yields in the southeastern United States, Eastern Europe, and sub-Saharan Africa.

“Even with optimistic scenarios for reduced emissions of greenhouse gases, results show that the volatility in year-to-year maize production in the U.S. will double by the middle of this century, due to increasing average growing season temperature,” said study co-author David Battisti.

“The same will be true in the other major maize-exporting countries. Climate change will cause unprecedented volatility in the price of maize, domestically and internationally.”

The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Evolution of sunflowers was fast-tracked by changes in their RNA

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder have investigated the remarkable transformation of sunflowers from wild to domesticated, which has occurred in a relatively short amount of time. The experts set out to identify the genetic mechanisms that have facilitated this rapid evolution.

Sunflowers have held agricultural value for their seeds and oil for an estimated 5,000 years in the time since they were first cultivated by man. There is some archaeological evidence to suggest that sunflowers were domesticated even before corn.

Wild varieties of the common sunflower, Helianthus annuus, are widely distributed across North America. These ancestral flowers grow smaller seeds compared to domesticated sunflowers, which have been selected over time for prominent flower heads that contain larger seeds with higher quality oil.

The researchers wanted to better understand the biological phenomenon of alternative splicing, a regulated process during gene expression that allows a single gene to code multiple RNA transcripts and proteins.

The process of alternative splicing not only creates useful capabilities in plants, but also introduces variation over time. However, exactly where this process originates from and what it contributes to major evolutionary transitions is not clearly understood.

Researchers performed RNA sequencing to compare a domesticated H. annuus variety with a wild variety of the same species, focusing on 226 cases of splicing differentiation.

The experts were able to identify the genetic regulation of splicing for 134 distinct genes, and found patterns which suggest that this mechanism is the basis of important domestication traits that have manifested under the conditions of heavy breeding by humans.

Study lead author Chris Smith is a graduate researcher in CU Boulder’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EBIO).

“We were surprised to find that splicing differences were attributable to relatively few regulatory changes” said Smith. “We expect that further down the road, various other species could be analyzed this way, too.”

The findings, which have shed new light on genetic divergence, could have broader implications for agricultural production.

The study is published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: Nolan Kane

Climate change could make leafy greens, veggies less available

With both global temperatures and demand for food set to to increase in the coming years, while water resources grow more strained, the impacts on agriculture and crops could cause catastrophic food scarcity.

A new study led by researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine reveals how climate change will affect the production and nutritional quality of vegetables and legumes.

Leafy greens, vegetables like tomatoes, and legumes are a crucial part of a healthy diet, however, these crops have been largely left out of climate change and agriculture studies.

Instead, the majority of research on crops show that increases in temperature and water scarcity will significantly change staple yields of rice and wheat.  

The study, which was the first of its kind to address this gap in climate change and agriculture research, was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers reviewed studies published since 1975 that investigated the impacts of environmental changes on vegetable and legume crop yields.

After examining all the past experiments and studies, the researchers then estimated how increases in greenhouse gases and water scarcity would impact future yields and nutritional quality.

The results show that if nothing is done to mitigate climate change and reduce emissions, vegetable crop yields could be reduced by 35 percent, and legumes by nine percent towards to the end of the century.

“Our study shows that environmental changes such as increased temperature and water scarcity may pose a real threat to global agricultural production, with likely further impacts on food security and population health,” said Pauline Scheelbeek, the study’s lead author.

Vegetables are an essential part of a healthy diet, and many health experts and climate studies urge people to increase their consumption of leafy greens and reduce red meat in their diets to lower their environmental impact.

However, this research shows that vegetable and legumes may soon be less readily available which could impact population health worldwide.

“Our analysis suggests that if we take a ‘business as usual’ approach, environmental changes will substantially reduce the global availability of these important foods,” said Alan Dangour, the study’s senior author. “Urgent action needs to be taken, including working to support the agriculture sector to increase its resilience to environmental changes and this must be a priority for governments across the world.”

The researchers emphasize the importance of improving agricultural innovations as well as reducing emissions and mitigating the impacts of climate change.

“This excellent review highlights that some of the most important foods, and some of the world’s most vulnerable people, are at highest risk. This research is a wake-up call, underlining the urgency of tackling climate change and of improving agricultural practices,” said Howie Frumkin, head of Our Planet, Our Health Program part of the Wellcome Trust, which funded the study.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer