Transforming Agriculture, Perennially
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Interview with a Plant Scientist: Piyush Labhsetwar, PhD, Research Technician for Perennial Wheat

Piyush Labhsetwar, Research Technician, Perennial Wheat

What got you interested in working with plant research?
I grew up in India. There, usually the pattern is that you become a doctor or engineer because those assure you well-paying jobs. I was leaning on the engineering side but had a lot of interest in biological systems, so I chose biotechnology which was a combination of engineering and biology. That was my foray into working with living systems. I liked the field so much that I wanted to pursue a PhD, which brought me to the University of Illinois to get my PhD in biophysics and computational biology. My work was modeling based, sitting in front of a computer making physical models of living systems. So, very theoretical, not much physical work.

I didn’t see myself continuing that after graduating, so I looked for something else related to biology but more hands on that would bring more meaning to me. Around that time, I also stumbled upon and got involved in a community garden, and that was a turning point where I started to think of plants as something interesting. I saw the power of gardening and agriculture to feed civilization and it being a very important tool for a community. That’s what got me intrigued by agriculture, and I started looking for related jobs. I found The Land Institute (TLI) on Facebook and started following it. When the time came to find employment, I approached TLI to see if there were any openings. Tim (Crews) didn’t have openings then, but I still wanted to see the place, so I came for Prairie Festival. Luckily, the stars aligned and Shuwen (Wang) was looking for a technician at that time. I learned about it, applied, and got the job.

 

What do you feel about your background lines you up well with the perennial wheat program?
It is almost an accident, because that is the program that had an opening when I was looking for work at TLI, but I think it lined up well. Wheat is a very well-researched system. It is a crop that provides 20% of the calories consumed by humans, so it has been studied for a long time. In fact, we have its whole genome sequenced and well-annotated. Since I came from biotechnology and biophysics training, it was very amenable for me to get into because there is a lot of genetics and bioinformatics work in perennial wheat looking at the sequence of the genes and predicting what their function might be. A lot of the work happens in the wet lab where we extract DNA or RNA, which are biological molecules, and code the information in biological systems. We extract them to send for sequencing or measure their quantity in our lab. I had performed these kinds of experiments in my undergraduate work and for an internship in Technical University in Graz, Austria, which lined me up well for this position. Shuwen is an expert in wheat and has been my primary teacher and very instrumental in this transition of my career.

 

Does perennial wheat do more with genetics than most of the other TLI programs?
Some of the other crops like silphium are not as well-studied plant as wheat, so they are more botany-heavy projects. The genes responsible for many traits in wheat are well studied. Since I came with biotech and biophysical training, I am better suited for wheat and its genetics.

 

Can you talk a bit about the typical year’s tasks for perennial wheat?
December is when I started at TLI, so I will start from there. It’s one of the slower months. We have already planted seeds in November for what will go in the greenhouse, which is where most of our work happens in winter. Being in Kansas, we work with winter wheat which needs to go through winter to be able to flower and produce seeds. We take the plants when they have more than three leaves and put them in the vernalization chamber, where it is approximately 40 degrees Fahrenheit all the time, to simulate winter.

In January, we bring those plants out and transplant them into pots in the greenhouse, and then as they start growing and flowering, our crossing work starts. In crossing you choose the plants with desired traits and help them to interbreed. Wheat is a self-pollinating plant, so it can fertilize itself, if left to itself. For crossing, we emasculate the wheat plants which will be providing the ovary. Emasculation involves getting rid of the stamen, the male reproductive organ of the flower, so that we can choose which pollen to fertilize the ovary with. Wheat flowers are tiny and not the typical flowers that people think of – it is very fine work. That takes up February and into March because we are emasculating many, many wheat heads and pouring lots of pollen on them.

The first step in perennial wheat breeding is the primary cross, which involves crossing annual wheat and wheatgrass. But the seeds produced are not able to support the embryo. That is because the parents that we are using are so different from each other that their chromosomes don’t match up well in the progeny. Since the seed is not able to support the embryo, so we must assist it. We take the seeds from the crossing, cut out the embryo from the seed, and put it in a test tube which has a growing medium. And the embryo grows on that. That is the only way it will be able to become a full plant. This process is called “embryo rescue”. Adam (Gorrell) helps with most of the embryo rescue work. After we have rescued the embryo and they are in the pots, we have to double the chromosomes because the chromosomes of wheat and wheatgrass are so different that even when these plants are rescued they cannot produce seeds of their own – they are infertile. To make them fertile, we treat them with a chemical called colchicine, which induces chromosome doubling. Finally, after embryo rescue and colchicine treatment, this plant is able to produce seed and then we can work with it further. All this happens in March and April.

As spring arrives, our wheat plants in the field start to grow. So, we start going out in the fields with interns to remove weeds from the plots. This process of weeding goes on until June when the plants are ready to harvest. Last year we had a very wet spring, so we needed to put some stakes in the fields to prevent lodging of some tall varieties.  During harvest, we cut single heads from single plants and use a rice-reaper-binder for small wheat plots. It’s a small machine designed to harvest small plots of rice, but it also works well for our small experimental wheat plots. If it is a much bigger field, we have a combine.

After the harvest, we have a lot of threshing to do in July, August, and September. The interns help with threshing all the seeds. Most of the seed is planted for the next season, some is turned into flour or sent for nutritional analysis. In October, we must plant our material in the field. Shuwen plans what material will be planted and where. After planting, we are done with the outdoor work.

In summer there is nothing really growing in the greenhouse, but when outdoor planting is done, we plant all the small trays for the greenhouse in November and then put them in the vernalization chamber in December to start the whole cycle again. This is the rough chronology of the wheat breeding program.

Shuwen makes all the decisions about breeding. I work on focused projects in the wet lab while assisting with day-to-day activities of breeding. My projects let me split my time evenly on a computer, lab bench, and greenhouse which I like a lot. And with wheat we get to be out in the field in spring and early summer which is perfect!

 

What research projects are you working on?
I have three projects I work on as part of the perennial wheat program. My main project is working on a domestication gene, which is a well-studied gene in wheat. It is called a domestication gene because it affects many of the attributes of wheat that make it a successful agricultural crop. One is threshability – which controls how easy it is to get the grain out of the wheat head – this is very important for us. I am looking at some hybrids between bread wheat and tall wheatgrass that Shuwen found which have good threshability. We want to sequence the domestication gene in these lines and see what version of the gene makes these lines easy to thresh. Once we know that, we can use that information in our own breeding program because annual wheat is very easy to thresh, and wheatgrass is not. So, when we create perennial wheat, some of our wheat lines are not easy to thresh.

Another project I have relates to the flowering time gene in wheat. (see Shuwen’s interview) One of the problems in perennial wheat is that once it goes through winter, flowers, and produces grain, then it keeps flowering again and again. It doesn’t go dormant for the next winter like a perennial plant would. The reason it doesn’t go dormant at the right time is because of the way annual wheat has been adapted to be cultivated globally, especially in Kansas. For annual wheat to be grown here, one of the important things to be bred in was for it to mature very quickly in spring so that it doesn’t have to face Kansas’ harsh summers. For that to happen, wheat breeders reduced its ability to sense the length of the day. Because of that feature, we can grow annual wheat here, but it is a problem for developing perennial wheat. Since it can’t sense the length of the day, our perennial wheat flowers at the wrong time and dies as a result. I am looking for versions of genes controlling flowering which can still sense the day length and hence be helpful for our wheat to be more perennial in Kansas.

My third project is to develop molecular markers to identify chromosomes in our hybrid lines, i.e. if they came from wheat or wheatgrass. To develop these DNA markers, we must identify unique features of each chromosome. Thanks to international collaborative efforts, we have the whole genome sequence of bread and durum wheat, and recently in collaboration with K-State, the genome of wheatgrass has been fully sequenced. So, I will look for genes which are only found in wheat, not wheatgrass, and vice versa. These unique genes will help us identify which chromosomes are present in our hybrid lines and which have been discarded.

 

You have been personally heavily involved with social justice movements in Salina, can you talk about how your interests are related to Ecosphere Studies?
The Ecosphere Studies program is one of the big reasons I came to TLI. If I only wanted to study agriculture or plants, I could have done that in a big Ag school. There are many great agricultural schools in the U.S., but what I saw in those universities is that the humanities aspect of agriculture is studied in a totally separate department than the scientific approach, so there is not much interaction between the two. What I realized, even before coming to TLI, was that in Ecosphere Studies people ask much broader questions about agriculture – which is of deep interest to me. It is great that TLI has a space where we can discuss social justice related to food and farming. Everyone here is a motivated individual, so that makes TLI a very interesting place to work.

It relates to why I got into agriculture too. I was not finding the work related to my PhD very meaningful but found much more meaning in my family’s roots in agriculture. My grandfather’s generation moved away from it, but we always went back to see the farming happening, and my uncles currently sell machinery and seeds to farmers in India. So, agriculture was always in the background and much of my family is educated in it. My part of India is the main cotton producer for the country, but it is the area where farmers distress is highest. It is the epicenter of farmer suicides in India. That fact was bothering me. What causes farmers all this distress when they are doing the most important job in society? I wonder if there is something I can do professionally to improve these circumstances? Getting into agriculture as a scientist was a way to get in the door. Hopefully in the future, I will be able to do something in that part of the world.

 

You have been instrumental in the Lunch Bunch (research papers shared for a weekly lunchtime open discussion which all staff are welcome to attend) and keeping that going. How did that come about?
The credit goes to David (Van Tassel) who is a very good teacher and always looking to instigate discussions around different topics. He had an interesting paper that he wanted to discuss with other people, so he asked if we could talk about it over lunch. I had just started at TLI and wanted to learn about all aspects of agriculture, so I thought that was a great idea. After that, I tried to keep conversations going by asking if there were other papers we should all talk about, that we could send around for people to read and discuss. We have had different discussions on all kinds of things including botany, genetics, agronomy, ecology, entomology, economics, and social justice. I feel this activity of lunch bunch reflects on how TLI started. It started as an experimental school. Lunch bunch is a place to learn, which is at the heart of what TLI is.

 

What are your 5-10 year personal or perennial agriculture goals?
I am not sure what my life will look like in the next 5-10 years because I am not a citizen in this country, and there are other moving parts in my life right now. After my two years of experience at TLI, I definitely want to continue to be associated with agriculture. It’s a way to be grounded in the local ecology and society. I also love the mobility between the desk, field, lab, and greenhouse. It is nice to stick to something and become an expert, and because I started with perennial wheat, I would like to continue with it.

Another thing which is interesting to me is studying the epistemology of modern scientific enterprise. I think it has the potential to help find our place in the ecosphere. I also want to connect with agricultural activism in South Asia. South Asia is a big agrarian economy with most of the population directly involved in agriculture in a very small-scale way. With globalization, climate change, and inequalities in society, farmers there are really struggling. So, I want to get more directly involved in the struggle with them.

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