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Tuskegee University joins Center for Research on Programmable Plant Systems (CROPPS)

Tuskegee University's College of Agriculture, Environment and Nutrition Sciences has become the latest partner of the Center for Research on Programmable Plant Systems (CROPPS), a Science and Technology Center funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation aimed at developing tools to communicate with plants and the associated organisms that make up their microbiomes.

Tuskegee joins Cornell, the Boyce Thompson Institute, the University of Arizona and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as partners of CROPPS. Cornell leads the center, which is dedicated to addressing the broader impacts of crop-based agriculture on sustainability, resilience, and human and environmental health.

CROPPS serves as a transdisciplinary center that explores scientific discoveries, technological innovations, and social, ethical and policy considerations associated with plant life, agriculture, and natural environment management. Since its launch in September 2021, the program has brought together faculty and trainees from various disciplines, including life sciences, engineering, computer science and social sciences, forming a collaborative research community focused on the field of digital biology.

Digital biology relies on the advancements in several disciplines, such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, automation, communication, and computer science. Tuskegee’s partnership will strengthen the CROPPS mission of advancing sustainable and resilient crop-based agriculture and shape the future of the digital biology research community, according to Abe Stroock, director of CROPPS and the Gordon L. Dibble ’50 Professor in the Robert F. Smith School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell.

“CROPPS is fortunate to have Tuskegee University joining its partnership of institutions. Tuskegee is one of the birthplaces of modern approaches in agriculture in the U.S. and shares the ambition of CROPPS of strengthening interactions between the plant sciences, engineering, computing, and social science to train a next generation of innovators and to accelerate discovery and translation in agriculture,” Stroock said.

CROPPS is pursuing its vision within three interconnected 'living labs': the Integrative Team for Organismal Communication (iTOC), the Discovery Engine for Extreme Phenotypes and Field Investigation of Novel Diversity (DEEPFIND), and the Social and Ethical Engagement with Digital Biology (SEED). The science of the living labs is supported by two Innovation Hubs dedicated to plant bioengineering and technologies for field measurements and modeling. 

“Tuskegee is delighted to be part of this lofty scientific endeavor in advancing sustainable agriculture and plant communication technology,” said Marceline Egnin, professor of molecular genetics and biotechnology in the College of Agriculture, Environment & Nutrition Sciences, who serves as the faculty lead for the Tuskegee campus within CROPPS.

Tuskegee brings expertise in plant bioengineering, phenomics, genomics, and developing and integrating field-ready crop modeling and management technologies. The collaboration will also enable the development of novel education and training programs focusing on minority undergraduate and graduate students, Egnin said. The educational programs will cover advanced topics in agricultural sciences and AI-aided design and process control, explicitly focusing on peanuts and sweet potatoes.

“As a leading institution in the training of world-class, African-American scientists, Tuskegee is excited to work on this new challenge of advancing and training the next generation of plant scientists in an integrated approach to plant biological research and translation," Egnin said. 

Egnin's lab will collaborate within the Plant Bioengineering Hub alongside labs led by Joyce Van Eck, Robert Shepherd, and Christopher Alabi. The lab will focus on accelerating tissue-culture-based plant bioengineering methods and developing novel techniques for culture-free gene editing.

Gregory Bernard, assistant professor of plant sciences at Tuskegee, will bring expertise in automating field measurements using field-ready robots to collaborations within the DEEPFIND living lab, working alongside the labs of Robert Shepherd and Michael Gore at Cornell University and Girish Chowdhary at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

“AI-aided design and process control are areas of precision agriculture that are budding in Tuskegee, and the CROPPS partnership will serve our students well,” Bernard said. 

Tuskegee faculty bring expertise to CROPPS in plant bioengineering, crop improvement, and the development and integration of field-ready technologies for measuring and managing crops. This expansion also introduces essential new agricultural contexts from the Southeast of the U.S., with crops such as sweet potato, a distinct environment, and representation of different stakeholders and communities. Tuskegee also has an exceptional track record in training leaders in science, industry, and government from African-American communities that have been less well-represented at our other partner institutions. 

“I am excited to have the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Egnin,” said Van Eck, professor at BTI and adjunct assistant professor in the School of Integrative Plant Science Plant Breeding and Genetics Section in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “The partnership will allow us to broaden CROPPS’ plant bioengineering efforts to include peanuts and sweet potatoes by leveraging Dr. Egnin’s expertise with these two very important and nutritious food crops.

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