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New faculty join the School of Science in 2022

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Thursday, November 17, 2022

This fall, the MIT School of Science welcomes seven new faculty to the departments of Biology; Chemistry; Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Studies (EAPS); Mathematics; and Physics. Wanying Kang researches large-scale atmospheric and oceanic dynamics, and their effects on the climate of Earth and other planetary bodies. She hopes to bridge multiple geoscience fields by applying tools from climate science on Earth to planetary science questions. Currently, Kang is looking into the atmospheric circulation on superhot lava worlds and the ocean circulation on icy moons, given the potential to observe them in more detail in the near future. Kang earned an undergraduate degree in physics from Peking University and a PhD in applied math from Harvard University. She first joined the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences as a distinguished postdoc through the Houghton-Lorenz Fellowship. Now, Kang has been appointed an assistant professor in climate science in EAPS. Sarah Millholland explores the demographics and diversity of extrasolar planetary systems. Using orbital dynamics and theory, she investigates how gravitational interactions like tides, resonances, and spin dynamics influence the formation and evolution of planetary systems and shape observable exoplanet properties. Millholland obtained bachelor’s degrees in physics and applied mathematics from the University of Saint Thomas in 2015. She spent her first year of graduate school at the University of California at Santa Cruz before transferring to Yale University, earning her PhD in astronomy from Yale in 2020. She then moved to Princeton University, where she was a NASA Sagan Postdoctoral Fellow from 2020-22. Millholland joins MIT as an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and a member of the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. Sam Peng PhD ’14 aims to develop novel probes and microscopy techniques to visualize the dynamics of individual molecules in living cells, which will improve the understanding of molecular mechanisms underlying human diseases. Peng’s group will focus on studying molecular dynamics, protein-protein interactions, and cellular heterogeneity involved in neurobiology and cancer biology. Their long-term goal is to translate these mechanistic insights into drug discovery. Peng received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, and his PhD from MIT in physical chemistry. Most recently, he completed postdoctoral research at Stanford University. He returns to MIT as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and a core member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. Julien Tailleur is a physicist focusing on the emerging properties of active materials, which encompass systems made of large assemblies of units able to exert propelling forces on their environment. From molecular motors to cells and animal groups, active systems are found at all scales in nature. Most recently, Tailleur combined the development of theoretical frameworks to describe active systems with their applications to the study of microbiological systems. Tailleur completed his undergraduate studies in mathematics at Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC) and in physics at Université d’Orsay. He earned his PhD in physics in 2007 from UPMC. After becoming an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council postdoc at the University of Edinburgh, Tailleur joined French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Université Paris Diderot in 2011, then becoming a CNRS Director of Research in 2018. Tailleur joins the Department of Physics as an associate professor. Richard Teague works to understand the earliest stages of planetary systems, specifically, where, when, and how they can form. A major component of his research is the development of new techniques to detect examples of planets while they are still embedded in their parental protoplanetary disks, a period of the planet's growth phase which is currently hidden from view. Teague is also leading the exoALMA collaboration, searching for the youngest exoplanets with one of the largest telescopes in the world, the Atacama Large (sub-) Milimeter Array (ALMA). Teague earned a master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh and a PhD from the Max-Planck-Institute for Astronomy. Previously, he was a Submillimeter Array fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a postdoc at the University of Michigan and the Max-Planck-Institute for Astronomy. Teague joins MIT as an assistant professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences. Research interests of Martin Wainwright PhD ’02 include high-dimensional statistics, statistical machine learning, information theory, and optimization theory. One focus is algorithms and Markov random fields, a class of probabilistic model based on graphs used to capture dependencies in multivariate data: for example, image models, data compression, and computational biology. He also studies the effect of decentralization and communication constraints in statistical inference problems. A final area of interest is methodology and theory for high-dimensional inference problems. Wainwright received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from University of Waterloo followed by a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) from MIT. Most recently, he was the Chancellor's Professor at the University of California at Berkeley with a joint appointment between the departments of Statistics and EECS. Wainwright returns to MIT as a professor of mathematics and electrical engineering and computer science. Immune cells communicate across scales in time and space, forming circuits that control their destructive capacity. Harikesh Wong employs a variety of quantitative approaches, including advanced fluorescence microscopy and computational modeling, to study these circuits within intact tissue environments. Ultimately, he seeks to understand how imbalanced immune cell communication — due to genetic or environmental variation — results in detrimental outcomes, including chronic infection, autoimmunity, and the formation of tumors. Wong received a bachelor’s degree from McMaster University followed by a PhD in cell biology from the University of Toronto. Next, he pursued a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health in immunology and systems biology. Wong joins MIT as an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and a core member of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard.

Seven professors join the departments of Biology; Chemistry; Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences; Mathematics; and Physics.

This fall, the MIT School of Science welcomes seven new faculty to the departments of Biology; Chemistry; Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Studies (EAPS); Mathematics; and Physics.

Wanying Kang researches large-scale atmospheric and oceanic dynamics, and their effects on the climate of Earth and other planetary bodies. She hopes to bridge multiple geoscience fields by applying tools from climate science on Earth to planetary science questions. Currently, Kang is looking into the atmospheric circulation on superhot lava worlds and the ocean circulation on icy moons, given the potential to observe them in more detail in the near future.

Kang earned an undergraduate degree in physics from Peking University and a PhD in applied math from Harvard University. She first joined the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences as a distinguished postdoc through the Houghton-Lorenz Fellowship. Now, Kang has been appointed an assistant professor in climate science in EAPS.

Sarah Millholland explores the demographics and diversity of extrasolar planetary systems. Using orbital dynamics and theory, she investigates how gravitational interactions like tides, resonances, and spin dynamics influence the formation and evolution of planetary systems and shape observable exoplanet properties.

Millholland obtained bachelor’s degrees in physics and applied mathematics from the University of Saint Thomas in 2015. She spent her first year of graduate school at the University of California at Santa Cruz before transferring to Yale University, earning her PhD in astronomy from Yale in 2020. She then moved to Princeton University, where she was a NASA Sagan Postdoctoral Fellow from 2020-22. Millholland joins MIT as an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and a member of the Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research.

Sam Peng PhD ’14 aims to develop novel probes and microscopy techniques to visualize the dynamics of individual molecules in living cells, which will improve the understanding of molecular mechanisms underlying human diseases. Peng’s group will focus on studying molecular dynamics, protein-protein interactions, and cellular heterogeneity involved in neurobiology and cancer biology. Their long-term goal is to translate these mechanistic insights into drug discovery.

Peng received his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of California at Berkeley, and his PhD from MIT in physical chemistry. Most recently, he completed postdoctoral research at Stanford University. He returns to MIT as an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and a core member of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Julien Tailleur is a physicist focusing on the emerging properties of active materials, which encompass systems made of large assemblies of units able to exert propelling forces on their environment. From molecular motors to cells and animal groups, active systems are found at all scales in nature. Most recently, Tailleur combined the development of theoretical frameworks to describe active systems with their applications to the study of microbiological systems.

Tailleur completed his undergraduate studies in mathematics at Université Pierre et Marie Curie (UPMC) and in physics at Université d’Orsay. He earned his PhD in physics in 2007 from UPMC. After becoming an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council postdoc at the University of Edinburgh, Tailleur joined French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and Université Paris Diderot in 2011, then becoming a CNRS Director of Research in 2018. Tailleur joins the Department of Physics as an associate professor.

Richard Teague works to understand the earliest stages of planetary systems, specifically, where, when, and how they can form. A major component of his research is the development of new techniques to detect examples of planets while they are still embedded in their parental protoplanetary disks, a period of the planet's growth phase which is currently hidden from view. Teague is also leading the exoALMA collaboration, searching for the youngest exoplanets with one of the largest telescopes in the world, the Atacama Large (sub-) Milimeter Array (ALMA).

Teague earned a master’s degree from the University of Edinburgh and a PhD from the Max-Planck-Institute for Astronomy. Previously, he was a Submillimeter Array fellow at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and a postdoc at the University of Michigan and the Max-Planck-Institute for Astronomy. Teague joins MIT as an assistant professor in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.

Research interests of Martin Wainwright PhD ’02 include high-dimensional statistics, statistical machine learning, information theory, and optimization theory. One focus is algorithms and Markov random fields, a class of probabilistic model based on graphs used to capture dependencies in multivariate data: for example, image models, data compression, and computational biology. He also studies the effect of decentralization and communication constraints in statistical inference problems. A final area of interest is methodology and theory for high-dimensional inference problems.

Wainwright received a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from University of Waterloo followed by a PhD in electrical engineering and computer science (EECS) from MIT. Most recently, he was the Chancellor's Professor at the University of California at Berkeley with a joint appointment between the departments of Statistics and EECS. Wainwright returns to MIT as a professor of mathematics and electrical engineering and computer science.

Immune cells communicate across scales in time and space, forming circuits that control their destructive capacity. Harikesh Wong employs a variety of quantitative approaches, including advanced fluorescence microscopy and computational modeling, to study these circuits within intact tissue environments. Ultimately, he seeks to understand how imbalanced immune cell communication — due to genetic or environmental variation — results in detrimental outcomes, including chronic infection, autoimmunity, and the formation of tumors.

Wong received a bachelor’s degree from McMaster University followed by a PhD in cell biology from the University of Toronto. Next, he pursued a postdoc at the National Institutes of Health in immunology and systems biology. Wong joins MIT as an assistant professor in the Department of Biology and a core member of the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard.

Read the full story here.
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Three MIT-led projects awarded MURI funding for 2023

Through the Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative, the US Department of Defense supports research projects in areas of critical importance to national defense.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) recently announced the recipients of its Multidisciplinary University Research Initiative (MURI) awards for 2023. This year, MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering (MechE) professors George Barbasthasis and John Hart, MIT Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS) Assistant Professor Pulkit Agrawal, and MIT Department of Materials Science and Engineering Associate Professor Rob Macfarlane are principal investigators on projects selected for MURI Awards. Two others from MIT — Professor Ila Fiete of the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences and Director of Strategic Industry Engagement for the MIT Schwarzman College of Computing Aude Oliva — will be participating in these projects. In addition, three MURI projects led by faculty at other institutions will be collaborating with other MIT researchers. The 2023 MURI awards total $220 million and will fund 31 research projects at an extensive list of institutions. The MURI program is designed to support research in areas of critical importance to national defense, and brings together teams of researchers from multiple universities to collaborate on projects that are expected to lead to significant advances in science and technology. The program is highly competitive, with only a small fraction of proposals receiving funding each year, and it has a strong track record of supporting research that has led to breakthroughs in fields ranging from materials science to information technology. Fundamental limits of nanoscale X-ray microscopy in radiation-sensitive materials One of the funded projects is titled “Searching for what’s new: the systematic development of dynamic X‐ray microscopy.” This will be led by Professor George Barbastathis of MechE, alongside colleagues from Northwestern University and Stony Brook University, and falls within the Fundamental Limits of Nanoscale X-ray Microscopy in Radiation Sensitive Materials MURI topic. Barbastathis and his team explain that X-ray microscopes offer unique capabilities, but can also be harmful to the small objects they’re taking images of. This team has developed a new approach that puts forward a paradigm shift for higher resolution and the study of dynamics, allowing one to start with knowledge they already have of a specific object, rather than a blank slate. This should allow them to use less harmful X-ray exposures. The team plans to test this approach to study three model systems: small machines, batteries, and cells. This project is sponsored by the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research and will help the DoD by providing new insights into the function of batteries used in troop-carried electronics, aircraft, and elsewhere; in the response of micro electronic mechanical systems, which are used in the field as sensors; and in the biological response of cells to external stresses and environmental changes. Spatially programmed material properties via designed mesostructures John Hart and Rob Macfarlane are co-leading a MURI project entitled “Directed assembly of mesoscale architectures in additive manufacturing,” sponsored by the U.S. Office of Naval Research. The project is in collaboration with professors A.J. Boydston of the University of Wisconsin; Randall Erb and Safa Jamali of Northeastern University; and Arthi Jayaraman of the University of Delaware. The team’s expertise spans chemistry, materials science, simulation, machine learning, machine design, and characterization. While additive manufacturing can create complex geometries from a wide variety of materials, it is typically not possible to control the architecture of the material at a length scale smaller than the resolution of the additive process. The MURI team will combine additive manufacturing with “bottom-up” directed assembly, using tailored nanoparticle building blocks and polymers, and by building new instruments to study the process and validate computational predictions. The end goal of the project is to realize materials and structures with emergent thermal electromagnetic, and optical properties that could be used in, for instance, cooling of high-power electronics, next-generation communication systems, and high-performance cameras. Neuro‐inspired distributed deep learning Pulkit Agrawal, assistant professor in EECS and an affiliate of the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) and the MIT Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems (LIDS), leads a third MURI project. Agrawal's team, which includes Ila Fiete and Aude Oliva of MIT as well as researchers from Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley, proposes an alternative to the mainstream machine-learning practice of condensing large datasets into the weights of deep neural network and discarding the training data itself. Such an approach has fundamental limitations when it comes to lifelong learning and the associated questions of generalization, long-term reasoning, and catastrophic forgetting. As such, the proposal suggests avoiding compressing data ahead of time and instead combining data on-the-fly for the environment or task encountered by the agent, using memory retrieval to improve generalization.  The work aims to articulate a set of high-level computational principles for the design of memory systems, leveraging knowledge about how the brain encodes and retrieves information from memory. It aims to determine how these principles can be leveraged to tackle challenging machine learning tasks, understand how biological memory systems represent and retrieve naturalistic inputs, and help in the integration of AI into a wide variety of real-world systems. Ideally, the end result will yield practical algorithms for generalization to new tasks, lifelong learning without catastrophic forgetting, and transfer across sensory modalities.

How corporations use greenwashing to win consumers

Many corporations claim their products are “green-friendly.” But how do you know if what they’re selling is truly eco-safe? SciLine interviewed Thomas Lyon, professor of sustainable science, technology and commerce at the University of Michigan, on how to buy environmentally sustainable products, whether carbon credits actually work and the prevalence of greenwashing. WHAT IS GREENWASHING? […] The post How corporations use greenwashing to win consumers appeared first on SAPeople - Worldwide South African News.

Many corporations claim their products are “green-friendly.” But how do you know if what they’re selling is truly eco-safe? SciLine interviewed Thomas Lyon, professor of sustainable science, technology and commerce at the University of Michigan, on how to buy environmentally sustainable products, whether carbon credits actually work and the prevalence of greenwashing. WHAT IS GREENWASHING? How can the consumer avoid falling for it? ALSO READ: Climate change protest: A single radical gets more media coverage than thousands of marchers Thomas Lyon: I still love the old concept of the seven sins of greenwashing. The first and most common is what’s called the sin of the hidden trade-off, where an organization tells you something good they do but neglects to tell you the bad things that go along with it. For example, when you see an electric hand dryer in a public restroom, it may say on it: This dryer protects the environment. It saves trees from being used for paper. But it neglects to tell you that, of course, it’s powered with electricity, and that electricity may have been generated from coal-fired power, which might actually be more damaging than using a tree, which is a renewable resource. That’s the most common of the seven deadly sins. Other ones include the sin of irrelevance. For example, telling people that “this ship has an onboard wastewater recycling plant,” when all ships that go to Alaska are required by law to have exactly that kind of equipment. It’s no reflection of the company’s quality. GREEN FRIENDLY The sin of fibbing is actually the least common. Companies don’t usually actually lie about things. After all, it’s against the law. One of the increasingly common forms of greenwashing … is a hidden trade-off between the company’s market activities and its political activities. You may get a company that says: Look at this, we invested US$5 million in renewable energy last year. They may not tell you that they spent $100 billion drilling for oil in a sensitive location. And they may not tell you that they spent $50 million lobbying against climate legislation that would have made a real difference. Thomas Lyon: Greenwashing is any communication that leads the listener to adopt an overly favorable impression of a company’s greenness. WHAT ARE CARBON CREDITS (OR OFFSETS)? Thomas Lyon: I think the easiest way to understand these may be to step back a little bit and think about cap-and-trade systems … under which the government will set a cap on the aggregate amount of, say, carbon emissions. And within that, each company gets a right to emit a certain amount of carbon. But that company can then trade permits with other companies. Suppose the company finds it’s going to be really expensive for it to reduce its carbon emissions. But there’s some other company next door that could do it really cheaply. The company with the expensive reductions could pay the other company to do the reductions for it, and it then buys one of the permits – or more than one permit – from the company that can do it cheaply. ALSO READ: Snake rescuer catches 1.8m long black mamba in Durban That kind of trading system has been recommended by economists for decades, because it lowers the overall cost of achieving a given level of emissions reduction. And that’s a clean, well-enforced, reliable system. Now the place where things get confusing for people is that a lot of times the offsets are not coming from within a cap-and-trade system. Instead they’re coming from a voluntary offset that’s offered by some free-standing producer that’s not included in a cap. Now it’s necessary to ask a whole series of additional questions. Perhaps the foremost among them is: Is this offset actually producing a reduction that was not going to happen anyway? CONSUMERS’ DUTY It may be that the company claims, “Oh, we’re saving this forest from being cut down.” But maybe the forest was in a protected region in a country where there was no chance it was going to be cut down anyway. So that offset is not what is called in the offset world “additional.” What should consumers make of companies that offer programs such as planting a tree for every widget they sell? Thomas Lyon: Overall, it’s better that they’re trying to do something than just ignoring the issue. But this is where you, the consumer, have to start doing your homework … and look for a provider that has a strong reputation and that is making claims validated by external sources. Which rating schemes can people trust? Thomas Lyon: There’s a cool little app that I like a lot. You can download it. It’s called EWG Healthy Living. EWG stands for Environmental Working Group. It’s a group of scientists who get together and draw on science to assess which products are environmentally friendly, and which ones aren’t. And they have something like 150,000 products in their database. ALSO READ: City of Cape Town will donate to NSRI annually to assist with towing of marine life You can scan the UPC code when you go to the store, and you just immediately get this information up on your phone that rates the quality of the company’s environmental claims and performance. That’s a really nice little way to verify things on the fly. ENVIRONMENT Are there any examples of business practices that really do benefit the environment? Thomas Lyon: Building is one big area. LEED building standards or Energy Star building standards reduce environmental impact. They improve the quality of the indoor environment for employees. They actually produce higher rents because people are more willing to work in these kinds of buildings. You can look at the whole movement toward renewable energy and companies that produce solar or wind energy. They’re doing something that really is good for the environment. ALSO READ: Climate change almost doubles the risk of wildfires in Cape Town The move toward electric vehicles – that really will be good for the environment. It does raise trade-offs. There are going to be issues around certain critical mineral inputs into producing batteries, and we’ve got to figure out good ways to reuse batteries and then dispose of them at the end of their life. Article by: Tom Lyon. Professor of Sustainable Science, Technology and Commerce and Business Economics, University of Michigan This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ARTICLES BY THE CONVERSATION. The post How corporations use greenwashing to win consumers appeared first on SAPeople - Worldwide South African News.

NASA’s Plant Science is Rooted in Earth and Shoots for the Stars

NASA supports USDA plant science research that benefits life on our home planet and beyond! This image shows the USDA Biotechnology Lab at EPCOT, located within Walt Disney World Resort. The two illuminated white squares stacked one over the other above the Biotechnology Lab sign are plant growing chambers developed by NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division at Kennedy Space Center. (Credit: Mark Sperry/USDA Agricultural Research Service) Since December 2019, NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division (BPS) has partnered with the USDA on joint plant research for the USDA’s Biotechnology Lab. At the lab, horticulturalists study and propagate a range of horticultural crops and under this partnership, BPS-sponsored scientists at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida work to achieve faster growth and better, increased yields for diverse plant varieties.  The key to this process? Microbes. Microbial Magic at Work in Plants The thought of microbes might conjure images of harmful mold or call to mind illness-causing viruses and bacteria. But certain microbes can actually benefit both human and plant health. With this project, scientists study plant-microbial interactions to determine which kinds of microbes enhance plant growth. And they’ve discovered one, the fungus Cladosporium sphaerospermum. “We have a group here at Kennedy that tests what crops can be grown in spaceflight, based on factors including nutritional quality and overall biomass,” said Dr. Anirudha R. Dixit, one of the research scientists contracted at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to conduct research under this partnership. “The focus of this research is to test the growth promotion abilities of this particular fungus on some of these crops to see if exposure to gases produced by the fungus could help increase their total biomass.” USDA and NASA researchers worked together to sequence this fuzzy, powdery black fungus (dubbed ‘Black Magic’) for the first time, allowing them to monitor the genetic changes as it grows and develops. They’ve found that this specific strain does in fact help promote the growth of plants growing nearby and they suspect that these positive effects are due to volatile organic compounds produced by the fungus. Environmental Test Chambers (ETCs) developed through BPS funding could help confirm whether this theory is correct. Versions of the plant growing chambers tested at Kennedy Space Center for use at the USDA Biotechnology Lab. (Credit: NASA Kennedy Space Center) This image shows two plant growing chambers at the USDA Biotechnology Lab. The chambers were developed by NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division at Kennedy Space Center. (Credit: Mark Sperry/USDA Agricultural Research Service) In addition to conducting fundamental research on microbes as well as plant growth and development testing, BPS’s other major role in this partnership was to design and build growth chambers specifically for these studies. The USDA Biotechnology Lab is located at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT theme park and is visible to visitors who embark on the Living with the Land attraction, a boat ride that tells the history of farming and gives a glimpse into the varied research conducted at the lab. In December 2022, two chambers were delivered to the lab at EPCOT. Like those on the ground at Kennedy and similar to the Advanced Plant Habitat and Veggie on the International Space Station, the chambers provide USDA researchers with more active control for growth conditions including temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide (CO2) and lighting. The chambers also provide a more closed atmosphere that enables scientists to examine synergistic effects between microbes and plants. “With these chambers, we’re able to continue studying if these volatile compounds are indeed the cause of these growth promotion effects on the plants or if these effects are caused by the amount of CO2 that the fungus produces,” said Ray Wheeler, plant physiologist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “If there are volatile compounds, we want to identify what they might be, why they benefit plant growth and the mechanisms behind this.” Plant growing chambers visible at the USDA Biotechnology Lab. (Credit: Mark Sperry/USDA Agricultural Research Service) Scientists at Kennedy have primarily conducted these microbial studies in lettuce and mizuna (a mild-tasting Brassica in the mustard family). These leafy greens were chosen for this research because they grow quickly, which allows scientists to harvest them sooner than they could other plant varieties and therefore repeat experiments more quickly. Stellar Applications on Our Home Planet and Beyond Research conducted under this cross-agency collaboration has potential benefits both in space and on our home planet. “The original objective of this project was to figure out how to increase overall crop productivity in order to benefit terrestrial agriculture,” said Dixit. “We can also apply these methods in the spaceflight environment to maximize the overall productivity of plants grown in the limited space we have aboard spacecraft.” NASA astronaut Jessica Meir harvests leaves from Mizuna mustard greens for analysis and consumption during the Veg-04 experiment, part of a phased research project to address the need for fresh food production in space. Credits: NASA Developing new methods to increase plant yield may not only allow for a greater variety of plants to be grown and eaten in space, as has been done with Veggie experiments on the International Space Station, but these advancements could also contribute to more efficient and productive agricultural methods on Earth. In addition, the joint USDA/NASA plant research could have applications for commercial technologies that support sustainable farming on Earth. “If there’s a way to co-utilize these microbes or fungi where you deliberately inoculate them into the growing media of plants, it could potentially speed up the growth and produce better yields or quicker yields,” said Wheeler. “If we can clearly demonstrate this on the ground, then it would be nice to do a follow-up test in space to see if the same thing occurs in microgravity.” Researchers are working to expand the plant varieties investigated under this partnership to crops including tomatoes. In the future, scientists also aim to test this ground research in space, bringing the microbial magic to the cosmos. Learn more about NASA’s Plant Biology Program Related EFRI ELiS: Bioweathering Dynamics and Ecophysiology of Microbially Catalyzed Soil Genesis of Martian Regolith  Dynamics of Microbiomes in Space (DynaMoS) Surviving Space: Extreme Plant Adaptation News Article Type: Homepage ArticlesPublished: Thursday, May 11, 2023 - 09:53

NASA supports USDA plant science research that benefits life on our home planet and beyond! This image shows the USDA Biotechnology Lab at EPCOT, located within Walt Disney World Resort. The two illuminated white squares stacked one over the other above the Biotechnology Lab sign are plant growing chambers developed by NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division at Kennedy Space Center. (Credit: Mark Sperry/USDA Agricultural Research Service) Since December 2019, NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division (BPS) has partnered with the USDA on joint plant research for the USDA’s Biotechnology Lab. At the lab, horticulturalists study and propagate a range of horticultural crops and under this partnership, BPS-sponsored scientists at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida work to achieve faster growth and better, increased yields for diverse plant varieties.  The key to this process? Microbes. Microbial Magic at Work in Plants The thought of microbes might conjure images of harmful mold or call to mind illness-causing viruses and bacteria. But certain microbes can actually benefit both human and plant health. With this project, scientists study plant-microbial interactions to determine which kinds of microbes enhance plant growth. And they’ve discovered one, the fungus Cladosporium sphaerospermum. “We have a group here at Kennedy that tests what crops can be grown in spaceflight, based on factors including nutritional quality and overall biomass,” said Dr. Anirudha R. Dixit, one of the research scientists contracted at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center to conduct research under this partnership. “The focus of this research is to test the growth promotion abilities of this particular fungus on some of these crops to see if exposure to gases produced by the fungus could help increase their total biomass.” USDA and NASA researchers worked together to sequence this fuzzy, powdery black fungus (dubbed ‘Black Magic’) for the first time, allowing them to monitor the genetic changes as it grows and develops. They’ve found that this specific strain does in fact help promote the growth of plants growing nearby and they suspect that these positive effects are due to volatile organic compounds produced by the fungus. Environmental Test Chambers (ETCs) developed through BPS funding could help confirm whether this theory is correct. Versions of the plant growing chambers tested at Kennedy Space Center for use at the USDA Biotechnology Lab. (Credit: NASA Kennedy Space Center) This image shows two plant growing chambers at the USDA Biotechnology Lab. The chambers were developed by NASA’s Biological and Physical Sciences Division at Kennedy Space Center. (Credit: Mark Sperry/USDA Agricultural Research Service) In addition to conducting fundamental research on microbes as well as plant growth and development testing, BPS’s other major role in this partnership was to design and build growth chambers specifically for these studies. The USDA Biotechnology Lab is located at Walt Disney World’s EPCOT theme park and is visible to visitors who embark on the Living with the Land attraction, a boat ride that tells the history of farming and gives a glimpse into the varied research conducted at the lab. In December 2022, two chambers were delivered to the lab at EPCOT. Like those on the ground at Kennedy and similar to the Advanced Plant Habitat and Veggie on the International Space Station, the chambers provide USDA researchers with more active control for growth conditions including temperature, humidity, carbon dioxide (CO2) and lighting. The chambers also provide a more closed atmosphere that enables scientists to examine synergistic effects between microbes and plants. “With these chambers, we’re able to continue studying if these volatile compounds are indeed the cause of these growth promotion effects on the plants or if these effects are caused by the amount of CO2 that the fungus produces,” said Ray Wheeler, plant physiologist at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. “If there are volatile compounds, we want to identify what they might be, why they benefit plant growth and the mechanisms behind this.” Plant growing chambers visible at the USDA Biotechnology Lab. (Credit: Mark Sperry/USDA Agricultural Research Service) Scientists at Kennedy have primarily conducted these microbial studies in lettuce and mizuna (a mild-tasting Brassica in the mustard family). These leafy greens were chosen for this research because they grow quickly, which allows scientists to harvest them sooner than they could other plant varieties and therefore repeat experiments more quickly. Stellar Applications on Our Home Planet and Beyond Research conducted under this cross-agency collaboration has potential benefits both in space and on our home planet. “The original objective of this project was to figure out how to increase overall crop productivity in order to benefit terrestrial agriculture,” said Dixit. “We can also apply these methods in the spaceflight environment to maximize the overall productivity of plants grown in the limited space we have aboard spacecraft.” NASA astronaut Jessica Meir harvests leaves from Mizuna mustard greens for analysis and consumption during the Veg-04 experiment, part of a phased research project to address the need for fresh food production in space. Credits: NASA Developing new methods to increase plant yield may not only allow for a greater variety of plants to be grown and eaten in space, as has been done with Veggie experiments on the International Space Station, but these advancements could also contribute to more efficient and productive agricultural methods on Earth. In addition, the joint USDA/NASA plant research could have applications for commercial technologies that support sustainable farming on Earth. “If there’s a way to co-utilize these microbes or fungi where you deliberately inoculate them into the growing media of plants, it could potentially speed up the growth and produce better yields or quicker yields,” said Wheeler. “If we can clearly demonstrate this on the ground, then it would be nice to do a follow-up test in space to see if the same thing occurs in microgravity.” Researchers are working to expand the plant varieties investigated under this partnership to crops including tomatoes. In the future, scientists also aim to test this ground research in space, bringing the microbial magic to the cosmos. Learn more about NASA’s Plant Biology Program Related EFRI ELiS: Bioweathering Dynamics and Ecophysiology of Microbially Catalyzed Soil Genesis of Martian Regolith  Dynamics of Microbiomes in Space (DynaMoS) Surviving Space: Extreme Plant Adaptation News Article Type: Homepage ArticlesPublished: Thursday, May 11, 2023 - 09:53

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