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    New J-WAFS-led project combats food insecurity

    Today the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT announced a new research project, supported by Community Jameel, to tackle one of the most urgent crises facing the planet: food insecurity. Approximately 276 million people worldwide are severely food insecure, and more than half a million face famine conditions.     To better understand and analyze food security, this three-year research project will develop a comprehensive index assessing countries’ food security vulnerability, called the Jameel Index for Food Trade and Vulnerability. Global changes spurred by social and economic transitions, energy and environmental policy, regional geopolitics, conflict, and of course climate change, can impact food demand and supply. The Jameel Index will measure countries’ dependence on global food trade and imports and how these regional-scale threats might affect the ability to trade food goods across diverse geographic regions. A main outcome of the research will be a model to project global food demand, supply balance, and bilateral trade under different likely future scenarios, with a focus on climate change. The work will help guide policymakers over the next 25 years while the global population is expected to grow, and the climate crisis is predicted to worsen.    

    The work will be the foundational project for the J-WAFS-led Food and Climate Systems Transformation Alliance, or FACT Alliance. Formally launched at the COP26 climate conference last November, the FACT Alliance is a global network of 20 leading research institutions and stakeholder organizations that are driving research and innovation and informing better decision-making for healthy, resilient, equitable, and sustainable food systems in a rapidly changing climate. The initiative is co-directed by Greg Sixt, research manager for climate and food systems at J-WAFS, and Professor Kenneth Strzepek, climate, water, and food specialist at J-WAFS.

    The dire state of our food systems

    The need for this project is evidenced by the hundreds of millions of people around the globe currently experiencing food shortages. While several factors contribute to food insecurity, climate change is one of the most notable. Devastating extreme weather events are increasingly crippling crop and livestock production around the globe. From Southwest Asia to the Arabian Peninsula to the Horn of Africa, communities are migrating in search of food. In the United States, extreme heat and lack of rainfall in the Southwest have drastically lowered Lake Mead’s water levels, restricting water access and drying out farmlands. 

    Social, political, and economic issues also disrupt food systems. The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, supply chain disruptions, and inflation continue to exacerbate food insecurity. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is dramatically worsening the situation, disrupting agricultural exports from both Russia and Ukraine — two of the world’s largest producers of wheat, sunflower seed oil, and corn. Other countries like Lebanon, Sri Lanka, and Cuba are confronting food insecurity due to domestic financial crises.

    Few countries are immune to threats to food security from sudden disruptions in food production or trade. When an enormous container ship became lodged in the Suez Canal in March 2021, the vital international trade route was blocked for three months. The resulting delays in international shipping affected food supplies around the world. These situations demonstrate the importance of food trade in achieving food security: a disaster in one part of the world can drastically affect the availability of food in another. This puts into perspective just how interconnected the earth’s food systems are and how vulnerable they remain to external shocks. 

    An index to prepare for the future of food

    Despite the need for more secure food systems, significant knowledge gaps exist when it comes to understanding how different climate scenarios may affect both agricultural productivity and global food supply chains and security. The Global Trade Analysis Project database from Purdue University, and the current IMPACT modeling system from the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), enable assessments of existing conditions but cannot project or model changes in the future.

    In 2021, Strzepek and Sixt developed an initial Food Import Vulnerability Index (FIVI) as part of a regional assessment of the threat of climate change to food security in the Gulf Cooperation Council states and West Asia. FIVI is also limited in that it can only assess current trade conditions and climate change threats to food production. Additionally, FIVI is a national aggregate index and does not address issues of hunger, poverty, or equity that stem from regional variations within a country.

    “Current models are really good at showing global food trade flows, but we don’t have systems for looking at food trade between individual countries and how different food systems stressors such as climate change and conflict disrupt that trade,” says Greg Sixt of J-WAFS and the FACT Alliance. “This timely index will be a valuable tool for policymakers to understand the vulnerabilities to their food security from different shocks in the countries they import their food from. The project will also illustrate the stakeholder-guided, transdisciplinary approach that is central to the FACT Alliance,” Sixt adds.

    Phase 1 of the project will support a collaboration between four FACT Alliance members: MIT J-WAFS, Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research, IFPRI (which is also part of the CGIAR network), and the Martin School at the University of Oxford. An external partner, United Arab Emirates University, will also assist with the project work. This first phase will build on Strzepek and Sixt’s previous work on FIVI by developing a comprehensive Global Food System Modeling Framework that takes into consideration climate and global changes projected out to 2050, and assesses their impacts on domestic production, world market prices, and national balance of payments and bilateral trade. The framework will also utilize a mixed-modeling approach that includes the assessment of bilateral trade and macroeconomic data associated with varying agricultural productivity under the different climate and economic policy scenarios. In this way, consistent and harmonized projections of global food demand and supply balance, and bilateral trade under climate and global change can be achieved. 

    “Just like in the global response to Covid-19, using data and modeling are critical to understanding and tackling vulnerabilities in the global supply of food,” says George Richards, director of Community Jameel. “The Jameel Index for Food Trade and Vulnerability will help inform decision-making to manage shocks and long-term disruptions to food systems, with the aim of ensuring food security for all.”

    On a national level, the researchers will enrich the Jameel Index through country-level food security analyses of regions within countries and across various socioeconomic groups, allowing for a better understanding of specific impacts on key populations. The research will present vulnerability scores for a variety of food security metrics for 126 countries. Case studies of food security and food import vulnerability in Ethiopia and Sudan will help to refine the applicability of the Jameel Index with on-the-ground information. The case studies will use an IFPRI-developed tool called the Rural Investment and Policy Analysis model, which allows for analysis of urban and rural populations and different income groups. Local capacity building and stakeholder engagement will be critical to enable the use of the tools developed by this research for national-level planning in priority countries, and ultimately to inform policy.  Phase 2 of the project will build on phase 1 and the lessons learned from the Ethiopian and Sudanese case studies. It will entail a number of deeper, country-level analyses to assess the role of food imports on future hunger, poverty, and equity across various regional and socioeconomic groups within the modeled countries. This work will link the geospatial national models with the global analysis. A scholarly paper is expected to be submitted to show findings from this work, and a website will be launched so that interested stakeholders and organizations can learn more information. More

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    Helping cassava farmers by extending crop life

    The root vegetable cassava is a major food staple in dozens of countries across the world. Drought-resistant, nutritious, and tasty, it has also become a major source of income for small-scale, rural farmers in places like West Africa and Southeast Asia.

    But the utility of cassava has always been limited by its short postharvest shelf life of two to three days. That puts millions of farmers who rely on the crop in a difficult position. The farmers can’t plant more than they can sell quickly in local markets, and they’re often forced to sell below market prices because buyers know the harvest will spoil rapidly. As a result, cassava farmers are among the world’s poorest people.

    Now the startup CassVita is buying cassava directly from farmers and applying a patent-pending biotechnology to extend its shelf life to 18 months. The approach has the potential to transform economies in rural, impoverished regions where millions of families rely on the crop for income.

    CassVita tells farmers how much cassava the company will buy each month, and processes the cassava at a manufacturing facility in Cameroon. It currently sells the first version of its product as a powdered food to people in Cameroon and to West African immigrants in the U.S.

    But CassVita founder and CEO Pelkins Ajanoh ’18 says the future of the company will revolve around its next product: a cassava-based flour that can act as a direct substitute for wheat. The wheat substitute would dramatically broaden CassVita’s target market to include the fast-growing, trillion-dollar healthy food market.

    Ajanoh says CassVita is currently able to increase farmers’ incomes by about 400 percent through its purchases.

    “Our objective is to leverage proprietary technology to offer a healthier and better-tasting alternative to wheat while creating prosperity for local farmers,” Ajanoh says. “We’re hoping to tap into this huge market while empowering farmers, all by minimizing spoilage and incentivizing farmers to plant more.”

    Gaining confidence to help a community

    While growing up in Cameroon, Ajanoh’s parents always emphasized the importance of education for him and his three siblings. But Ajanoh lost his father when he was 13, and his mother moved to the U.S. a year later to help provide for the family. During that time, Ajanoh lived with his grandmother, a cassava farmer. For many years, Ajanoh watched his grandmother harvest cassava without making any lasting financial gains. He remembers feeling powerless as his grandmother struggled to pay for things like diabetes medication.

    Then Ajanoh earned the top marks on the national exams that Cameroonian students take before college. After high school, he joined his mother in the U.S. and came to MIT to study mechanical engineering. Once on campus, Ajanoh says he had lunch with new people all the time to learn from them.

    “I’d never had this community of intellectuals — and they were from all over the world — so I soaked up as much as I could,” Ajanoh says. “That sparked an interest in entrepreneurship, because MIT is super entrepreneurial. Everyone’s thinking of starting something cool.”

    Ajanoh also got a confidence boost during an internship in the summer after his junior year, when he created self-driving technology for General Motors that was eventually patented.

    “It made me realize I could do something really valuable for the world, and by the end of that internship I was thinking, ‘Now I want to solve a problem in my community,’” he says.

    Returning to the crop he knew well, Ajanoh received a series of grants from the MIT Sandbox Innovation Fund to experiment with ways to extend the shelf life of cassava. In the summer of 2018, the MIT-Africa program sponsored three MIT students to fly to Cameroon with him to participate in internships with the company.

    Today CassVita partners with development banks to help farmers get loans to buy the cassava sticks used for planting. Ajanoh says CassVita decided on a powdered food for its first product because it requires less marketing to sell to West Africans, who are familiar with the dish. Now the company is working on a cassava flour that it will market to all consumers looking for healthy alternatives to wheat that can be used in pastries and other baked goods.

    “Cassava makes sense as a global substitute to wheat because it’s gluten free, grain free, nut free, and it also helps with glucose regulation, to normalize blood sugar levels, to lower triglycerides, so the health benefits are exciting,” Ajanoh says. “But the farmers were still living in poverty, so if we could solve the shelf-life problem then we could empower these farmers to offer healthier wheat alternatives to the global market.”

    The project has taken on additional urgency now that the war in Ukraine is limiting that country’s wheat and grain exports, raising prices, and heightening food insecurity in regions around the globe.

    Showing the value of helping farmers

    Ajanoh says the majority of people farming cassava are women, and he says the challenges related to cassava’s shelf life have contributed to gender inequities in many communities. In fact, of the roughly 500 farmers CassVita works with in Cameroon, 95 percent are women.

    “That has always excited me because I was raised by women, so working on something that could empower women in their communities and give them authority is fulfilling,” Ajanoh says.

    Ajanoh has already heard from farmers who have been able to send their children to school for the first time because of improved financial situations. Now, as CassVita continues to scale, Ajanoh wants to stay focused on the technology that enables these new business models.

    “We’re evolving into a food technology company,” Ajanoh says. “We prefer to focus on leveraging technology to impact lives and improve outcomes in these communities. Right now, we’re going all the way to consumers because this is an opportunity the Nestles and the Unilevers of the world won’t pick up because the market doesn’t make sense to them yet. So, we have to build this company and show them the value.” More

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    MIT J-WAFS announces 2022 seed grant recipients

    The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) at MIT has awarded eight MIT principal investigators with 2022 J-WAFS seed grants. The grants support innovative MIT research that has the potential to have significant impact on water- and food-related challenges.

    The only program at MIT that is dedicated to water- and food-related research, J-WAFS has offered seed grant funding to MIT principal investigators and their teams for the past eight years. The grants provide up to $75,000 per year, overhead-free, for two years to support new, early-stage research in areas such as water and food security, safety, supply, and sustainability. Past projects have spanned many diverse disciplines, including engineering, science, technology, and business innovation, as well as social science and economics, architecture, and urban planning. 

    Seven new projects led by eight researchers will be supported this year. With funding going to four different MIT departments, the projects address a range of challenges by employing advanced materials, technology innovations, and new approaches to resource management. The new projects aim to remove harmful chemicals from water sources, develop drought monitoring systems for farmers, improve management of the shellfish industry, optimize water purification materials, and more.

    “Climate change, the pandemic, and most recently the war in Ukraine have exacerbated and put a spotlight on the serious challenges facing global water and food systems,” says J-WAFS director John H. Lienhard. He adds, “The proposals chosen this year have the potential to create measurable, real-world impacts in both the water and food sectors.”  

    The 2022 J-WAFS seed grant researchers and their projects are:

    Gang Chen, the Carl Richard Soderberg Professor of Power Engineering in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, is using sunlight to desalinate water. The use of solar energy for desalination is not a new idea, particularly solar thermal evaporation methods. However, the solar thermal evaporation process has an overall low efficiency because it relies on breaking hydrogen bonds among individual water molecules, which is very energy-intensive. Chen and his lab recently discovered a photomolecular effect that dramatically lowers the energy required for desalination. 

    The bonds among water molecules inside a water cluster in liquid water are mostly hydrogen bonds. Chen discovered that a photon with energy larger than the bonding energy between the water cluster and the remaining water liquids can cleave off the water cluster at the water-air interface, colliding with air molecules and disintegrating into 60 or even more individual water molecules. This effect has the potential to significantly boost clean water production via new desalination technology that produces a photomolecular evaporation rate that exceeds pure solar thermal evaporation by at least ten-fold. 

    John E. Fernández is the director of the MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative (ESI) and a professor in the Department of Architecture, and also affiliated with the Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Fernández is working with Scott D. Odell, a postdoc in the ESI, to better understand the impacts of mining and climate change in water-stressed regions of Chile.

    The country of Chile is one of the world’s largest exporters of both agricultural and mineral products; however, little research has been done on climate change effects at the intersection of these two sectors. Fernández and Odell will explore how desalination is being deployed by the mining industry to relieve pressure on continental water supplies in Chile, and with what effect. They will also research how climate change and mining intersect to affect Andean glaciers and agricultural communities dependent upon them. The researchers intend for this work to inform policies to reduce social and environmental harms from mining, desalination, and climate change.

    Ariel L. Furst is the Raymond (1921) and Helen St. Laurent Career Development Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. Her 2022 J-WAFS seed grant project seeks to effectively remove dangerous and long-lasting chemicals from water supplies and other environmental areas. 

    Perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a component of Teflon, is a member of a group of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). These human-made chemicals have been extensively used in consumer products like nonstick cooking pans. Exceptionally high levels of PFOA have been measured in water sources near manufacturing sites, which is problematic as these chemicals do not readily degrade in our bodies or the environment. The majority of humans have detectable levels of PFAS in their blood, which can lead to significant health issues including cancer, liver damage, and thyroid effects, as well as developmental effects in infants. Current remediation methods are limited to inefficient capture and are mostly confined to laboratory settings. Furst’s proposed method utilizes low-energy, scaffolded enzyme materials to move beyond simple capture to degrade these hazardous pollutants.

    Heather J. Kulik is an associate professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT who is developing novel computational strategies to identify optimal materials for purifying water. Water treatment requires purification by selectively separating small ions from water. However, human-made, scalable materials for water purification and desalination are often not stable in typical operating conditions and lack precision pores for good separation. 

    Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs) are promising materials for water purification because their pores can be tailored to have precise shapes and chemical makeup for selective ion affinity. Yet few MOFs have been assessed for their properties relevant to water purification. Kulik plans to use virtual high-throughput screening accelerated by machine learning models and molecular simulation to accelerate discovery of MOFs. Specifically, Kulik will be looking for MOFs with ultra-stable structures in water that do not break down at certain temperatures. 

    Gregory C. Rutledge is the Lammot du Pont Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT. He is leading a project that will explore how to better separate oils from water. This is an important problem to solve given that industry-generated oil-contaminated water is a major source of pollution to the environment.

    Emulsified oils are particularly challenging to remove from water due to their small droplet sizes and long settling times. Microfiltration is an attractive technology for the removal of emulsified oils, but its major drawback is fouling, or the accumulation of unwanted material on solid surfaces. Rutledge will examine the mechanism of separation behind liquid-infused membranes (LIMs) in which an infused liquid coats the surface and pores of the membrane, preventing fouling. Robustness of the LIM technology for removal of different types of emulsified oils and oil mixtures will be evaluated. César Terrer is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering whose J-WAFS project seeks to answer the question: How can satellite images be used to provide a high-resolution drought monitoring system for farmers? 

    Drought is recognized as one of the world’s most pressing issues, with direct impacts on vegetation that threaten water resources and food production globally. However, assessing and monitoring the impact of droughts on vegetation is extremely challenging as plants’ sensitivity to lack of water varies across species and ecosystems. Terrer will leverage a new generation of remote sensing satellites to provide high-resolution assessments of plant water stress at regional to global scales. The aim is to provide a plant drought monitoring product with farmland-specific services for water and socioeconomic management.

    Michael Triantafyllou is the Henry L. and Grace Doherty Professor in Ocean Science and Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. He is developing a web-based system for natural resources management that will deploy geospatial analysis, visualization, and reporting to better manage and facilitate aquaculture data.  By providing value to commercial fisheries’ permit holders who employ significant numbers of people and also to recreational shellfish permit holders who contribute to local economies, the project has attracted support from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries as well as a number of local resource management departments.

    Massachusetts shell fisheries generated roughly $339 million in 2020, accounting for 17 percent of U.S. East Coast production. Managing such a large industry is a time-consuming process, given there are thousands of acres of coastal areas grouped within over 800 classified shellfish growing areas. Extreme climate events present additional challenges. Triantafyllou’s research will help efforts to enforce environmental regulations, support habitat restoration efforts, and prevent shellfish-related food safety issues. More

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    Five MIT PhD students awarded 2022 J-WAFS fellowships for water and food solutions

    The Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS) recently announced the selection of its 2022-23 cohort of graduate fellows. Two students were named Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellows for Water Solutions and three students were named J-WAFS Graduate Student Fellows. All five fellows will receive full tuition and a stipend for one semester, and J-WAFS will support the students throughout the 2022-23 academic year by providing networking, mentorship, and opportunities to showcase their research.

    New this year, fellowship nominations were open not only to students pursuing water research, but food-related research as well. The five students selected were chosen for their commitment to solutions-based research that aims to alleviate problems such as water supply or purification, food security, or agriculture. Their projects exemplify the wide range of research that J-WAFS supports, from enhancing nutrition through improved methods to deliver micronutrients to developing high-performance drip irrigation technology. The strong applicant pool reflects the passion MIT students have to address the water and food crises currently facing the planet.

    “This year’s fellows are drawn from a dynamic and engaged community across the Institute whose creativity and ingenuity are pushing forward transformational water and food solutions,” says J-WAFS executive director Renee J. Robins. “We congratulate these students as we recognize their outstanding achievements and their promise as up-and-coming leaders in global water and food sectors.”

    2022-23 Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellows for Water SolutionsThe Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowship for Water Solutions is a fellowship for students pursuing water-related research at MIT. The Rasikbhai L. Meswani Fellowship for Water Solutions was made possible by a generous gift from Elina and Nikhil Meswani and family.

    Aditya Ghodgaonkar is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, where he works in the Global Engineering and Research (GEAR) Lab under Professor Amos Winter. Ghodgaonkar received a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the RV College of Engineering in India. He then moved to the United States and received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from Purdue University.Ghodgaonkar is currently designing hydraulic components for drip irrigation that could support the development of water-efficient irrigation systems that are off-grid, inexpensive, and low-maintenance. He has focused on designing drip irrigation emitters that are resistant to clogging, seeking inspiration about flow regulation from marine fauna such as manta rays, as well as turbomachinery concepts. Ghodgaonkar notes that clogging is currently an expensive technical challenge to diagnose, mitigate, and resolve. With an eye on hundreds of millions of farms in developing countries, he aims to bring the benefits of irrigation technology to even the poorest farmers.Outside of his research, Ghodgaonkar is a mentor in MIT Makerworks and has been a teaching assistant for classes such as 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing I). He also helped organize the annual MIT Water Summit last fall.

    Devashish Gokhale is a PhD candidate advised by Professor Patrick Doyle in the Department of Chemical Engineering. He received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, where he researched fluid flow in energy-efficient pumps. Gokhale’s commitment to global water security stemmed from his experience growing up in India, where water sources are threatened by population growth, industrialization, and climate change.As a researcher in the Doyle group, Devashish is developing sustainable and reusable materials for water treatment, with a focus on the elimination of emerging contaminants and other micropollutants from water through cost-effective processes. Many of these contaminants are carcinogens or endocrine disruptors, posing significant threats to both humans and animals. His advisor notes that Devashish was the first researcher in the Doyle group to work on water purification, bringing his passion for the topic to the lab.Gokhale’s research won an award for potential scalability in last year’s J-WAFS World Water Day competition. He also serves as the lecture series chair in the MIT Water Club.

    2022-23 J-WAFS Graduate Student FellowsThe J-WAFS Fellowship for Water and Food Solutions is funded by the J-WAFS Research Affiliate Program, which offers companies the opportunity to collaborate with MIT on water and food research. A portion of each research affiliate’s fees supports this fellowship. The program is central to J-WAFS’ efforts to engage across sector and disciplinary boundaries in solving real-world problems. Currently, there are two J-WAFS Research Affiliates: Xylem, Inc., a water technology company, and GoAigua, a company leading the digital transformation of the water industry.

    James Zhang is a PhD candidate in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at MIT, where he has worked in the NanoEngineering Laboratory with Professor Gang Chen since 2019. As an undergraduate at Carnegie Mellon University, he double majored in mechanical engineering and engineering public policy. He then received a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from MIT. In addition to working in the NanoEngineering Laboratory, James has also worked in the Zhao Laboratory and in the Boriskina Research Group at MIT.Zhang is developing a technology that uses light-induced evaporation to clean water. He is currently investigating the fundamental properties of how light interacts with brackish water surfaces. With strong theoretical as well as experimental components, his research could lead to innovations in desalinating brackish water at high energy efficiencies. Outside of his research, Zhang has served as a student moderator for the MIT International Colloquia on Thermal Innovations.

    Katharina Fransen is a PhD candidate advised by Professor Bradley Olsen in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT. She received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Minnesota, where she was involved in the Society of Women Engineers. Fransen is motivated by the challenge of protecting the most vulnerable global communities from the large quantities of plastic waste associated with traditional food packaging materials. As a researcher in the Olsen Lab, Fransen is developing new plastics that are biologically-based and biodegradable, so they can degrade in the environment instead of polluting communities with plastic waste. These polymers are also optimized for food packaging applications to keep food fresher for longer, preventing food waste.Outside of her research, Fransen is involved in Diversity in Chemical Engineering as the coordinator for the graduate application mentorship program for underrepresented groups. She is also an active member of Graduate Womxn in ChemE and mentors an Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program student.

    Linzixuan (Rhoda) Zhang is a PhD candidate advised by Professor Robert Langer and Ana Jaklenec in the Department of Chemical Engineering at MIT. She received a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she researched how to genetically engineer microorganisms for the efficient production of advanced biofuels and chemicals.Zhang is currently developing a micronutrient delivery platform that fortifies foods with essential vitamins and nutrients. She has helped develop a group of biodegradable polymers that can stabilize micronutrients under harsh conditions, enabling local food companies to fortify food with essential vitamins. This work aims to tackle a hidden crisis in low- and middle-income countries, where a chronic lack of essential micronutrients affects an estimated 2 billion people.Zhang is also working on the development of self-boosting vaccines to promote more widespread vaccine access and serves as a research mentor in the Langer Lab. More

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    Using plant biology to address climate change

    On April 11, MIT announced five multiyear flagship projects in the first-ever Climate Grand Challenges, a new initiative to tackle complex climate problems and deliver breakthrough solutions to the world as quickly as possible. This article is the fourth in a five-part series highlighting the most promising concepts to emerge from the competition and the interdisciplinary research teams behind them.

    The impact of our changing climate on agriculture and food security — and how contemporary agriculture contributes to climate change — is at the forefront of MIT’s multidisciplinary project “Revolutionizing agriculture with low-emissions, resilient crops.” The project The project is one of five flagship winners in the Climate Grand Challenges competition, and brings together researchers from the departments of Biology, Biological Engineering, Chemical Engineering, and Civil and Environmental Engineering.

    “Our team’s research seeks to address two connected challenges: first, the need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions produced by agricultural fertilizer; second, the fact that the yields of many current agricultural crops will decrease, due to the effects of climate change on plant metabolism,” says the project’s faculty lead, Christopher Voigt, the Daniel I.C. Wang Professor in MIT’s Department of Biological Engineering. “We are pursuing six interdisciplinary projects that are each key to our overall goal of developing low-emissions methods for fertilizing plants that are bioengineered to be more resilient and productive in a changing climate.”

    Whitehead Institute members Mary Gehring and Jing-Ke Weng, plant biologists who are also associate professors in MIT’s Department of Biology, will lead two of those projects.

    Promoting crop resilience

    For most of human history, climate change occurred gradually, over hundreds or thousands of years. That pace allowed plants to adapt to variations in temperature, precipitation, and atmospheric composition. However, human-driven climate change has occurred much more quickly, and crop plants have suffered: Crop yields are down in many regions, as is seed protein content in cereal crops.

    “If we want to ensure an abundant supply of nutritious food for the world, we need to develop fundamental mechanisms for bioengineering a wide variety of crop plants that will be both hearty and nutritious in the face of our changing climate,” says Gehring. In her previous work, she has shown that many aspects of plant reproduction and seed development are controlled by epigenetics — that is, by information outside of the DNA sequence. She has been using that knowledge and the research methods she has developed to identify ways to create varieties of seed-producing plants that are more productive and resilient than current food crops.

    But plant biology is complex, and while it is possible to develop plants that integrate robustness-enhancing traits by combining dissimilar parental strains, scientists are still learning how to ensure that the new traits are carried forward from one generation to the next. “Plants that carry the robustness-enhancing traits have ‘hybrid vigor,’ and we believe that the perpetuation of those traits is controlled by epigenetics,” Gehring explains. “Right now, some food crops, like corn, can be engineered to benefit from hybrid vigor, but those traits are not inherited. That’s why farmers growing many of today’s most productive varieties of corn must purchase and plant new batches of seeds each year. Moreover, many important food crops have not yet realized the benefits of hybrid vigor.”

    The project Gehring leads, “Developing Clonal Seed Production to Fix Hybrid Vigor,” aims to enable food crop plants to create seeds that are both more robust and genetically identical to the parent — and thereby able to pass beneficial traits from generation to generation.

    The process of clonal (or asexual) production of seeds that are genetically identical to the maternal parent is called apomixis. Gehring says, “Because apomixis is present in 400 flowering plant species — about 1 percent of flowering plant species — it is probable that genes and signaling pathways necessary for apomixis are already present within crop plants. Our challenge is to tweak those genes and pathways so that the plant switches reproduction from sexual to asexual.”

    The project will leverage the fact that genes and pathways related to autonomous asexual development of the endosperm — a seed’s nutritive tissue — exist in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. In previous work on Arabidopsis, Gehring’s lab researched a specific gene that, when misregulated, drives development of an asexual endosperm-like material. “Normally, that seed would not be viable,” she notes. “But we believe that by epigenetic tuning of the expression of additional relevant genes, we will enable the plant to retain that material — and help achieve apomixis.”

    If Gehring and her colleagues succeed in creating a gene-expression “formula” for introducing endosperm apomixis into a wide range of crop plants, they will have made a fundamental and important achievement. Such a method could be applied throughout agriculture to create and perpetuate new crop breeds able to withstand their changing environments while requiring less fertilizer and fewer pesticides.

    Creating “self-fertilizing” crops

    Roughly a quarter of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in the United States are a product of agriculture. Fertilizer production and use accounts for one third of those emissions and includes nitrous oxide, which has heat-trapping capacity 298-fold stronger than carbon dioxide, according to a 2018 Frontiers in Plant Science study. Most artificial fertilizer production also consumes huge quantities of natural gas and uses minerals mined from nonrenewable resources. After all that, much of the nitrogen fertilizer becomes runoff that pollutes local waterways. For those reasons, this Climate Grand Challenges flagship project aims to greatly reduce use of human-made fertilizers.

    One tantalizing approach is to cultivate cereal crop plants — which account for about 75 percent of global food production — capable of drawing nitrogen from metabolic interactions with bacteria in the soil. Whitehead Institute’s Weng leads an effort to do just that: genetically bioengineer crops such as corn, rice, and wheat to, essentially, create their own fertilizer through a symbiotic relationship with nitrogen-fixing microbes.

    “Legumes such as bean and pea plants can form root nodules through which they receive nitrogen from rhizobia bacteria in exchange for carbon,” Weng explains. “This metabolic exchange means that legumes release far less greenhouse gas — and require far less investment of fossil energy — than do cereal crops, which use a huge portion of the artificially produced nitrogen fertilizers employed today.

    “Our goal is to develop methods for transferring legumes’ ‘self-fertilizing’ capacity to cereal crops,” Weng says. “If we can, we will revolutionize the sustainability of food production.”

    The project — formally entitled “Mimicking legume-rhizobia symbiosis for fertilizer production in cereals” — will be a multistage, five-year effort. It draws on Weng’s extensive studies of metabolic evolution in plants and his identification of molecules involved in formation of the root nodules that permit exchanges between legumes and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. It also leverages his expertise in reconstituting specific signaling and metabolic pathways in plants.

    Weng and his colleagues will begin by deciphering the full spectrum of small-molecule signaling processes that occur between legumes and rhizobium bacteria. Then they will genetically engineer an analogous system in nonlegume crop plants. Next, using state-of-the-art metabolomic methods, they will identify which small molecules excreted from legume roots prompt a nitrogen/carbon exchange from rhizobium bacteria. Finally, the researchers will genetically engineer the biosynthesis of those molecules in the roots of nonlegume plants and observe their effect on the rhizobium bacteria surrounding the roots.

    While the project is complex and technically challenging, its potential is staggering. “Focusing on corn alone, this could reduce the production and use of nitrogen fertilizer by 160,000 tons,” Weng notes. “And it could halve the related emissions of nitrous oxide gas.” More

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    MIT engineers introduce the Oreometer

    When you twist open an Oreo cookie to get to the creamy center, you’re mimicking a standard test in rheology — the study of how a non-Newtonian material flows when twisted, pressed, or otherwise stressed. MIT engineers have now subjected the sandwich cookie to rigorous materials tests to get to the center of a tantalizing question: Why does the cookie’s cream stick to just one wafer when twisted apart?

    “There’s the fascinating problem of trying to get the cream to distribute evenly between the two wafers, which turns out to be really hard,” says Max Fan, an undergraduate in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering.

    In pursuit of an answer, the team subjected cookies to standard rheology tests in the lab and found that no matter the flavor or amount of stuffing, the cream at the center of an Oreo almost always sticks to one wafer when twisted open. Only for older boxes of cookies does the cream sometimes separate more evenly between both wafers.

    The researchers also measured the torque required to twist open an Oreo, and found it to be similar to the torque required to turn a doorknob and about 1/10th what’s needed to twist open a bottlecap. The cream’s failure stress — i.e. the force per area required to get the cream to flow, or deform — is twice that of cream cheese and peanut butter, and about the same magnitude as mozzarella cheese. Judging from the cream’s response to stress, the team classifies its texture as “mushy,” rather than brittle, tough, or rubbery.

    So, why does the cookie’s cream glom to one side rather than splitting evenly between both? The manufacturing process may be to blame.

    “Videos of the manufacturing process show that they put the first wafer down, then dispense a ball of cream onto that wafer before putting the second wafer on top,” says Crystal Owens, an MIT mechanical engineering PhD candidate who studies the properties of complex fluids. “Apparently that little time delay may make the cream stick better to the first wafer.”

    The team’s study isn’t simply a sweet diversion from bread-and-butter research; it’s also an opportunity to make the science of rheology accessible to others. To that end, the researchers have designed a 3D-printable “Oreometer” — a simple device that firmly grasps an Oreo cookie and uses pennies and rubber bands to control the twisting force that progressively twists the cookie open. Instructions for the tabletop device can be found here.

    The new study, “On Oreology, the fracture and flow of ‘milk’s favorite cookie,’” appears today in Kitchen Flows, a special issue of the journal Physics of Fluids. It was conceived of early in the Covid-19 pandemic, when many scientists’ labs were closed or difficult to access. In addition to Owens and Fan, co-authors are mechanical engineering professors Gareth McKinley and A. John Hart.

    Confection connection

    A standard test in rheology places a fluid, slurry, or other flowable material onto the base of an instrument known as a rheometer. A parallel plate above the base can be lowered onto the test material. The plate is then twisted as sensors track the applied rotation and torque.

    Owens, who regularly uses a laboratory rheometer to test fluid materials such as 3D-printable inks, couldn’t help noting a similarity with sandwich cookies. As she writes in the new study:

    “Scientifically, sandwich cookies present a paradigmatic model of parallel plate rheometry in which a fluid sample, the cream, is held between two parallel plates, the wafers. When the wafers are counter-rotated, the cream deforms, flows, and ultimately fractures, leading to separation of the cookie into two pieces.”

    While Oreo cream may not appear to possess fluid-like properties, it is considered a “yield stress fluid” — a soft solid when unperturbed that can start to flow under enough stress, the way toothpaste, frosting, certain cosmetics, and concrete do.

    Curious as to whether others had explored the connection between Oreos and rheology, Owens found mention of a 2016 Princeton University study in which physicists first reported that indeed, when twisting Oreos by hand, the cream almost always came off on one wafer.

    “We wanted to build on this to see what actually causes this effect and if we could control it if we mounted the Oreos carefully onto our rheometer,” she says.

    Play video

    Cookie twist

    In an experiment that they would repeat for multiple cookies of various fillings and flavors, the researchers glued an Oreo to both the top and bottom plates of a rheometer and applied varying degrees of torque and angular rotation, noting the values  that successfully twisted each cookie apart. They plugged the measurements into equations to calculate the cream’s viscoelasticity, or flowability. For each experiment, they also noted the cream’s “post-mortem distribution,” or where the cream ended up after twisting open.

    In all, the team went through about 20 boxes of Oreos, including regular, Double Stuf, and Mega Stuf levels of filling, and regular, dark chocolate, and “golden” wafer flavors. Surprisingly, they found that no matter the amount of cream filling or flavor, the cream almost always separated onto one wafer.

    “We had expected an effect based on size,” Owens says. “If there was more cream between layers, it should be easier to deform. But that’s not actually the case.”

    Curiously, when they mapped each cookie’s result to its original position in the box, they noticed the cream tended to stick to the inward-facing wafer: Cookies on the left side of the box twisted such that the cream ended up on the right wafer, whereas cookies on the right side separated with cream mostly on the left wafer. They suspect this box distribution may be a result of post-manufacturing environmental effects, such as heating or jostling that may cause cream to peel slightly away from the outer wafers, even before twisting.

    The understanding gained from the properties of Oreo cream could potentially be applied to the design of other complex fluid materials.

    “My 3D printing fluids are in the same class of materials as Oreo cream,” she says. “So, this new understanding can help me better design ink when I’m trying to print flexible electronics from a slurry of carbon nanotubes, because they deform in almost exactly the same way.”

    As for the cookie itself, she suggests that if the inside of Oreo wafers were more textured, the cream might grip better onto both sides and split more evenly when twisted.

    “As they are now, we found there’s no trick to twisting that would split the cream evenly,” Owens concludes.

    This research was supported, in part, by the MIT UROP program and by the National Defense Science and Engineering Graduate Fellowship Program. More

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    How molecular biology could reduce global food insecurity

    Staple crops like rice, maize, and wheat feed over half of the global population, but they are increasingly vulnerable to severe environmental risks. The effects of climate change, including changing temperatures, rainfall variability, shifting patterns of agricultural pests and diseases, and saltwater intrusion from sea-level rise, all contribute to decreased crop yields. As these effects continue to worsen, there will be less food available for a rapidly growing population. 

    Mary Gehring, associate professor of biology and a member of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, is growing increasingly concerned about the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change and has resolved to do something about it.

    The Gehring Lab’s primary research focus is plant epigenetics, which refers to the heritable information that influences plant cellular function but is not encoded in the DNA sequence itself. This research is adding to our fundamental understanding of plant biology and could have agricultural applications in the future. “I’ve been working with seeds for many years,” says Gehring. “Understanding how seeds work is going to be critical to agriculture and food security,” she explains.

    Laying the foundation

    Gehring is using her expertise to help crops develop climate resilience through a 2021 seed grant from MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS). Her research is aimed at discovering how we can accelerate the production of genetic diversity to generate plant populations that are better suited to challenging environmental conditions.

    Genetic variation gives rise to phenotypic variations that can help plants adapt to a wider range of climates. Traits such as flood resistance and salt tolerance will become more important as the effects of climate change are realized. However, many important plant species do not appear to have much standing genetic variation, which could become an issue if farmers need to breed their crops quickly to adapt to a changing climate. 

    In researching a nutritious crop that has little genetic variation, Gehring came across the pigeon pea, a species she had never worked with before. Pigeon peas are a legume eaten in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. They have some of the highest levels of protein in a seed, so eating more pigeon peas could decrease our dependence on meat, which has numerous negative environmental impacts. Pigeon peas also have a positive impact on the environment; as perennial plants, they live for three to five years and sequester carbon for longer periods of time. They can also help with soil restoration. “Legumes are very interesting because they’re nitrogen-fixers, so they create symbioses with microbes in the soil and fix nitrogen, which can renew soils,” says Gehring. Furthermore, pigeon peas are known to be drought-resistant, so they will likely become more attractive as many farmers transition away from water-intensive crops.

    Developing a strategy

    Using the pigeon pea plant, Gehring began to explore a universal technology that would increase the amount of genetic diversity in plants. One method her research group chose is to enhance transposable element proliferation. Genomes are made up of genes that make proteins, but large fractions are also made up of transposable elements. In fact, about 45 percent of the human genome is made up of transposable elements, Gehring notes. The primary function of transposable elements is to make more copies of themselves. Since our bodies do not need an infinite number of these copies, there are systems in place to “silence” them from copying. 

    Gehring is trying to reverse that silencing so that the transposable elements can move freely throughout the genome, which could create genetic variation by creating mutations or altering the promoter of a gene — that is, what controls a certain gene’s expression. Scientists have traditionally initiated mutagenesis by using a chemical that changes single base pairs in DNA, or by using X-rays, which can cause very large chromosome breaks. Gehring’s research team is attempting to induce transposable element proliferation by treatment with a suite of chemicals that inhibit transposable element silencing. The goal is to impact multiple sites in the genome simultaneously. “This is unexplored territory where you’re changing 50 genes at a time, or 100, rather than just one,” she explains. “It’s a fairly risky project, but sometimes you have to be ambitious and take risks.”

    Looking forward

    Less than one year after receiving the J-WAFS seed grant, the research project is still in its early stages. Despite various restrictions due to the ongoing pandemic, the Gehring Lab is now generating data on the Arabidopsis plant that will be applied to pigeon pea plants. However, Gehring expects it will take a good amount of time to complete this research phase, considering the pigeon pea plants can take upward of 100 days just to flower. While it might take time, this technology could help crops withstand the effects of climate change, ultimately contributing to J-WAFS’ goal of finding solutions to food system challenges.

    “Climate change is not something any of us can ignore. … If one of us has the ability to address it, even in a very small way, that’s important to try to pursue,” Gehring remarks. “It’s part of our responsibility as scientists to take what knowledge we have and try to apply it to these sorts of problems.” More

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    Progress toward a sustainable campus food system

    As part of MIT’s updated climate action plan, known as “Fast Forward,” Institute leadership committed to establishing a set of quantitative goals in 2022 related to food, water, and waste systems that advance MIT’s commitment to climate. Moving beyond the impact of campus energy systems, these newly proposed goals take a holistic view of the drivers of climate change and set the stage for new frontiers of collaborative climate work. “With the release of ‘Fast Forward,’ the MIT Office of Sustainability is setting out to partner with campus groups to study and quantify the climate impact of our campus food, while deeply considering the social, cultural, economic, and health aspects of a sustainable food system,” explains Susy Jones, senior sustainability project manager. 

    While “Fast Forward” is MIT’s first climate action plan to integrate the campus food system, the Division of Student Life (DSL) has long worked with dining vendors, MIT’s Office of Sustainability (MITOS), and other campus partners to advance a more sustainable, affordable, and equitable food system. Initiatives have ranged from increasing access to low-cost groceries on and around campus to sourcing sustainable coffee for campus cafes.

    Even with the complexities of operating during the pandemic, efforts in this area accelerated with the launch of new partnerships, support for local food industries, and even a food-startup incubator in the Stratton Student Center (Building W20). “Despite challenges posed by the pandemic, MIT Dining has been focused on positive change — driven in part by student input, alterations to the food landscape, and our ongoing goal to support a more sustainable and equitable campus food system,” says Mark Hayes, director of MIT Dining.

    New vendors on campus focus on healthy food systems

    For many, a fresh cup of coffee is a daily ritual. At MIT, that cup of coffee also offers an opportunity to make a more sustainable choice at the Forbes Family Café in the Stata Center (Building 32). The cafe now brews coffee by Dean’s Beans, a local roaster whose mission is to “prove that a for-profit business could create meaningful change through ethical business practices rooted in respect for the earth, the farmer, our co-workers, and the consumer.” The choice of Dean’s Beans — a certified B Corporation located in Orange, Massachusetts — as the new vendor in this space helps advance MIT’s commitment to sustainability. Businesses that achieve this certification meet rigorous social and environmental goals. “With choices like this, we’re taking big issues down to the campus level,” says Hayes. Dean’s Beans focuses on long-term producer relationships, organic shade-grown and bird-friendly coffee, a solar-powered roasting facility, and people-centered development programs. These practices contribute to healthier environments and habitats — benefiting farmers, soils, birds, pollinators, and more.

    Another innovative new food concept for the MIT community can be found down the street in the Stratton Student Center. The Launchpad, a nonprofit food business incubator created in partnership with CommonWealth Kitchen (CWK), debuted this fall in the second-floor Lobdell Food Court. It offers the MIT community more variety and healthy food options while also “advancing CWK’s and MIT’s mutual goal to support diverse, local start-up food businesses and to create a more just, equitable, and sustainable food economy,” according to DSL. Work on the Launchpad began in 2018, bringing together the Student Center Dining Concepts Working Group, comprising students from the Undergraduate Association, Graduate Student Council, DormCon, house dining chairs, and other students interested in dining and dining staff from the MITOS and DSL. Their goal was to re-envision dining options available in Lobdell to support local, diverse, and sustainable menus. “We’ve been nurturing a partnership with CommonWealth Kitchen for years and are excited to partner with them on a project that re-imagines the relationship between campus and local food systems,” says Jones. “And, of course, the vegetarian arepas are a highlight,” she adds.

    Local partnerships for sustainability

    The impacts of Covid-19 on local food businesses quickly came into focus in early 2020. For the New England fishing industry, this impact was acute — with restaurant closures, event cancellations, and disruptions in the global supply chain, fisheries suddenly found a dearth of markets for their catch, undermining their source of income. One way to address this confluence of challenges was for fisheries to expand into new markets where they may have had limited knowledge or experience.

    Enter MIT Sea Grant and MIT Dining. Supported in part by funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, MIT Sea Grant created the Covid-19 Rapid Response Program to develop new markets for local fisheries, including local food banks and direct sales to organizations including MIT. Though MIT Dining was stretched thin by the pandemic, the partnership offered a singular opportunity to support vital regional businesses and enhance menus in campus dining venues. “The stress level was unimaginable as more people were testing positive in the early days of the pandemic — it was the worst and most stressful time to do anything outside of what was completely necessary, and I get this phone call about chowder,” recalls Hayes. “Everyone is wearing two masks and standing six feet apart, but in about 15 seconds, I said to myself, ‘This is the exact time this needs to happen — in the middle of a pandemic when fishermen need support, families need support, people need support.’”

    Shortly after getting the call, Hayes and MIT Dining hosted a tasting event featuring “Small Boats, Big Taste Haddock Chowder,” developed through MIT Sea Grant’s work with the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance, which helped independent fishermen stay on the water during Covid-19. The tasting event also offered students a break to stop by and sample the chowder, which later debuted and continues to be served at MIT dining halls. For Hayes, one success of the partnership was the agility it demonstrated. “We don’t know what the next crisis is going to be, but these experiences will make us stronger to handle the next moment when people need the food system to work,” he says.

    In addition to ready-made options for students, MIT Dining and partners have also been working to support students who prepare their own meals, collaborating with local businesses to provide students access to lower-cost and at-cost groceries and food products. The Food Security Action Team, convened by Senior Associate Dean for Student Support and Well-being David Randall and DSL Executive Director for Administration Peter Cummings, is focused on taking action, tracking, and updating the community on food security efforts. These efforts have included collaborating with the Daily Table, a new nonprofit community grocer in Central Square. The store now accepts TechCASH and recently worked with the committee to host an interactive food tour for students.

    Because food systems are so interdependent and partnerships are critical — on and off campus — Hayes says it’s important to continue to share and learn. “Sharing our stories is crucial because we can help strengthen networks of campuses, institutions, and businesses in New England to grow more sustainable food programs like these.” More