Skip to main content

Combating Food Insecurity

A generous gift from Melih and Zeynep Keyman is fueling research on innovative approaches to monitoring plant health.

Sarah Sobol, wearing safety glasses, a light blue lab coat with a Northwestern research logo and orange gloves, is conducting synthetic biology research in a lab.
Sarah Sobol ’23 conducted synthetic biology research as an undergraduate. Image: Jason Brown / JB Creative

Spring 2024

As the world’s population rises and the effects of climate change threaten crop yields, food insecurity is an urgent matter. With the support of University Trustee Melih Keyman and Zeynep Keyman, Northwestern researchers are pursuing a novel approach to farming with the potential to make a substantial impact on the global food crisis. 

Traditional agricultural methods rely on the use of fertilizers to provide vital nutrients that help plants remain healthy and grow. But the amount of nutrients needed — based on soil conditions — is, at best, a guess. The most common strategy is to oversupply those nutrients, but this approach raises a host of sustainability issues and environmental concerns. 

Faculty in Northwestern’s Center for Synthetic Biology (CSB) are working toward a unique solution: Researchers are exploring the possibility of using “sense and respond” biosensors that, if successful, could create a state-of-the-art, data-driven soil monitoring system to trigger the release of compounds as needed to ensure plant health. 

“The global food crisis presents a great challenge, and we need innovative approaches to help feed the world’s ever-growing population,” Melih Keyman says. “Zeynep and I believe strongly in the work being done at the Center for Synthetic Biology, which can open up new scientific advances in agriculture that will profoundly address the issue of world hunger.” 

Using tools from a range of disciplines, synthetic biology allows scientists to reuse, repurpose or reconfigure biological systems to combat some of society’s most pressing problems. 

Since its launch in 2016, CSB has become a leader in the emerging field, laying the groundwork for research that can lead to advances in medicine, agriculture, manufacturing and sustainability. Researchers have developed new approaches for drug delivery, data storage methods using DNA and processes for creating synthetic proteins that can be used in products ranging from regenerative medicines to sustainable materials. Several faculty members have also parlayed their discoveries into startup companies, turning ideas into viable products with real-world applications. 

“Synthetic biology holds so much potential for innovation to solve complex challenges,” says Eric Perreault, Northwestern’s vice president for research. “We are grateful to the Keymans for recognizing and investing in this dynamic and evolving area of research.” 

Existing technologies for soil monitoring face several limitations. Current sensors are low resolution, provide data only by the acre and measure a small number of soil components. By leveraging the power of biology, Northwestern researchers have been able to repurpose naturally occurring microbial proteins to create high-resolution biosensors that detect more than 100 environmental compounds. With the research funding provided by the Keymans’ gift, this work can be extended to address agricultural needs. 

The first step will be to develop sensors that can more precisely monitor relevant soil components — including nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium and other micronutrients — as well as plant stress signals. Then researchers must find a way to encapsulate the platform in a soil environment. The final piece will be to develop a system for remediation, using data from the biosensors to release compounds needed to maintain the health of the crops. Together these measures will allow for a high-tech plant monitoring system that can boost crop production. 

“These approaches would not have been possible even two years ago, but new research suggests that our goal of developing biosensors with agricultural applications is achievable today,” says Danielle Tullman-Ercek, who co-directs CSB with fellow professor of chemical and biological engineering Julius Lucks. 

“With the help of research funding like the gift from the Keymans, we can create new technologies that will help to solve challenges in agriculture and address global needs,” she says.  

Share this Northwestern story with your friends via...

Reader Responses

No one has commented on this page yet.

Submit a Response