All too often, I find myself explaining to family members and new acquaintances that my self-imposed label of “photobiologist” doesn’t mean that I photograph flowers and insects. What I really study is how plants perceive and react to changes in quantity and quality of light, in other words, the colors and intensities that change plant biology. Most people have a basic understanding that plants need light to grow through the process of photosynthesis, but largely assume the role of light stops there. My interests revolve around the mechanisms of how light manipulates intricate metabolic processes in plants, such as the biosynthesis of flavor and nutritionally important compounds, and how this knowledge can be leveraged to improve human health and maximize food security around the world.
As erratic weather conditions and droughts related to climate change dictate the outcome of field crops, controlled environment agriculture (CEA) offers shelter from these volatile conditions and ensures consistent yields. However energy is the one of the largest indirect cost for CEA production due to temperature control and lighting. In an effort to make CEA more sustainable, our lab is using light emitting diodes (LEDs) as a way to reduce energy expenditures. These lighting systems have long lifespans and tend to use less energy than what is currently used. Using tomatoes as a model, we’ve found that we can achieve the same yield using LEDs as we could using traditional greenhouse fixtures, but with a fraction of the energy. Since 40% of tomatoes in the US come from greenhouses, our lab’s research directly impacts industry and our food system. But what’s exciting to me is that we also have the opportunity to “reprogram” tomatoes to be more healthful or even tastier using light.
Currently as a master’s student, my research focus is just that: using light to alter the taste and nutritional quality of greenhouse tomatoes. I use an analytical chemistry technique called mass spectrometry to quantify metabolites in tomato fruits that can reduce coronary artery disease and improve the survival of nervous tissue in the brain, among other benefits. We also host sensory panels to gauge if consumers can taste differences among fruits from our different light treatments, because light can alter the flavor of many crops. Lastly, I use a molecular biology tool called qPCR to quantify the expression of genes related to how plants perceive and react to different qualities of light. This way, we can better understand the mechanisms behind any metabolic changes we observe.
Being scientist is a challenging, but exciting career. A predominant part of my job is asking questions, formulating hypotheses, and answering these questions using the scientific method. That said, my questions are usually within the context of “How can we make our food better?” and “How can we get food to people who need it most?” Everything that our lab does is ultimately to improve lives and help food producers grow the highest quality crops. For me, it’s easy to get psyched-up before going to lab knowing that what we’re doing is helping other people.
Having such “photogenic” experiments also draws a diverse crowd to our different projects. Groups of elementary and middle school students often tour our greenhouse facilities and I use this as an opportunity to show them that agriculture isn’t just corn and soybeans. For some, this is the first time they’ve ever seen where a tomato comes from; illustrating the ag. literacy problem in urban and suburban communities. As someone from suburban Chicago, I grew up without ever seeing a farm, so I know how important this type of outreach is. Although not my primary job responsibility, these activities are a big part of what makes my job rewarding and fun. Ultimately, I’m a communicator and part of my job is to help inspire young people to explore science in the same way that others inspired me.
As I look into the future, it’s clear that humanity is faced with a variety of daunting challenges – climate change, population growth, and malnutrition, just to name a few. The field of research that I’m involved in has the potential to minimize, if not reverse these problems. With new lighting technologies, we can reduce the energy needed to grow specialty crops, lowering the carbon footprint, and allowing for food production in unorthodox places like warehouses or other indoor structures. With this in mind, supply chains can be established that efficiently feed people in urban environments and provide produce during the off-season. Using specific colors of light in these systems, we can make produce that tastes better and has higher levels of nutritionally important phytochemicals and minerals. Other labs in our field are even investigating ways of using light to extend the shelf life of produce and reduce spoilage.
This is the best time to be involved with science and agriculture. As 20,000 people die each day from malnutrition, there is an urgent need to develop safe and reliable technologies to reduce this number and improve the lives of those who have very little. Photobiology and CEA are just small subcategories of the scientific community and thousands of people are working diligently to solve the problems I outlined above. Being a member of this diverse group is empowering and I consider myself fortunate to be a part of the change we’re creating.
Michael Dzakovich is a member of the student Alliance for Science and a Master’s student at Purdue University.