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Exploring Precision Agriculture: A Conversation with Jason White

[LISA] Welcome to a special 15-year anniversary
episode of Stories from the NNI. I’m Lisa Friedersdorf, Director of the National
Nanotechnology Coordination Office. Today it’s my pleasure to welcome Jason White,
Vice Director and Chief Scientist of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment
Station Analytical Chemistry Department. His research looks at the intersection
of nanomaterials and crops. For example he looks at how nanoscale micronutrients
can suppress crop disease and enhance food production Jason, thank you so much
for joining us today. To get us started, can you tell us a little bit about
yourself and how you first got involved in nanotechnology? [JASON] Oh sure. I got my PhD
from Cornell University in Environmental Toxicology and ended up coming to the
experiment station for a postdoctoral position to work specifically on soil
contaminants and remediation, specifically a process, at the time we were
calling sequestration or weathering, so my training and my initial research
interest were always in contaminants in soil and then kind of over time, I came to the
Experiment Station in 1998, and kind of over time my interest transitioned from
not just being focused on what was going on in soil but what was ending up in
agricultural crops. We’rer an experiment station so agricultural crops and food
safety are one of the things that we look at. So I kind of worked in that area for
a while and then about 2009 I took over the analytical chemistry department. And
about that same time that’s when I really started getting a little more
interested in nanotechnology. Initially it was viewing kind of nanoparticles as
emerging contaminants, but then over time my interest kind of transitioned and
maybe we’ll talk about that a little bit. [LISA] You mentioned in your opening remarks
both emerging contaminants and food safety. Can you comment a little about
how nanotechnology plays a role in each of those categories? [JASON] So as I said, I took
over our analytical chemistry department 2009 and at that time I’d been working for ten years on contaminants in soil and contaminants moving
into crops. So what actually happened was I had a colleague of mine from a local
university and he was in a physics department and he had a master student
who was working on trying to assess the toxicity of certain nanoparticles to
bacteria. And being in a physics department, I suppose they were having
some trouble growing bacteria. So the masters student had about 6 months left
in this program and no no data at all. So this was, I think, December 2008. They gave
me a call because they knew I had a lot of experience working with plants and
contaminants. So my colleague asked if after the new year they could come over
and his masters student could run some experiments on nanoparticles and plants.
And I said sure, favor for a friend. I didn’t really know anything about
nanoparticles at the time other than the fact that I was pretty sure they were
small. But we did have facilities to run, you know, some of your standard phytotoxicity tests that you would run with plants and any contaminant. So the student
came over and did some of the germination assays and some
hydroponic exposures and worked for about two or three months and
then we started going through the data. And it was really interesting because
one of the things I’d asked him to do was, not being familiar with
nanoparticles, I indicated he should use the non nanoparticle versions of things
like silver and copper and zinc just for comparison and what we saw was that in a
lot of the experiments he ran, there was a difference based on size. So
nanoparticle silver was more toxic than non nanosilver. And this obviously is no
surprise to anybody now, but at the time this was, you know, early 2009. So we got
into the literature and at the time there was very little published on
nanoparticles and plants. We could only really find one or two published studies. So we wrote up the paper and submitted it to Environmental Science and
Technology and it was accepted fairly quickly and turned around and used that
data as preliminary data for a USDA food safety proposal and ended up getting
funded in that and just kind of by serendipity that one year those
proposals were larger. They were five years and a 1.5 million. So we had a
significant amount of funding to really get into some of the potential
toxicity of nanoparticles to agricultural crops. I think we looked at
ten or twelve different types of particles, different concentrations,
different species. And one of the things that kind of came out of that is we were
doing that work from 2011, 2012, 2013 was that under certain circumstances sometimes
these nanomaterials actually were not toxic. Not only were they not toxic, we
would see beneficial effects. Which if you’re trained as a toxicologist it’s
one of the things you know, toxicity is always a function of dose. So those kind
of observations, taken with the fact that there started to be a realization of
importance of global food security and the unsustainability of agricultural
systems, my interest started also going in that direction. How nanotechnology
could be used to actually increase crop productivity. So I never really lost
interest in nanotoxicology. I still work in that area, I still have people in my
lab doing those experiments, and I don’t really look at those two areas as
mutually exclusive. They’re actually interdependent. So now I have active
programs in both areas. [LISA] We sometimes think of applications in agriculture
similar to what’s being done in medicine with respect to targeting materials like
precision medicine. So instead of, for instance, spreading nutrients on
an entire field, really targeting the plant or the same for pesticides. Is that
the type of application that you can see using these nanoscale nutrients? [JASON] Yeah, absolutely. I mean I guess kind of the backstory behind of you know all of this
is current estimates are that we’re going to have to increase food
production by upwards of 50 to a hundred percent by the year 2050. And when you
look at, you know, most of our year-over-year increases in productivity
for our crops, the data is either flat or in some cases where
productivity is actually decreasing so kind of the take-home messages the way
we’re growing food on this planet is not going to sustain us. And we’re going to
need to grow food differently. So that’s kind of the back story. So then when you
look at agricultural systems now and the way we grow food, the first
thing that jumped out and caught my attention was the inefficiency of what
we’re doing. Whether you’re talking about a fertilizer that a farmer’s using or a
pesticide or even water in some cases. Anywhere from 40 to 70 to 80
percent of what’s applied, whether it’s nutrients or pesticides, it never makes
it to its target. It’s either degraded, it’s lost, it becomes bound to the soil,
depending on what component you’re talking about. So we know we have to
increase agricultural productivity, but we also know we have tremendous
inefficiency in the way we’re doing things. So kind of the low-hanging fruit
if you want to think about it that way is to go after that inefficiency and how
you do that is targeting. There’s this concept of precision agriculture and it’s modeled
off of precision medicine. You know, instead of just applying massive amounts
of copper from a tractor on a sprayer or even an airplane, can you specifically
target a certain type of copper as a fungicide or as a nutrient so that it
gets onto the plant when the plant needs it and gets into the plant where the
plant needs it? And if you could increase your efficiency, if you can double your
efficiency, you’d be increasing food production and decreasing water and
energy going into the system. So I think this concept of increasing
efficiency of pesticides, fertilizers, and water as well, though that’s not an area
I work in, is really going to be a critical component to how we grow food
in the next 20 to 30 years. [LISA] So Jason you commented a little bit about the
collaborative nature of your work and how you got started in this helping out
someone from the physics department. Can you discuss some of your other
collaborations? [JASON] There’s a couple that come to mind. One of the most active
collaborations now, as part of the Center for sustainable nanotechnology, I think I
mentioned this before, this is an NSF chemistry center. It’s the CCI program. So
about a year and a half ago, I was invited to join the center as a research
affiliate and they’ve been funding a postdoc in my laboratory. And one of the
things at the Center for sustainable nanotechnology does is they develop
nanomaterials there’s a lot of material scientists in there. So we started
working specifically with them to develop different kinds of
copper or silica that would have the impacts that we wanted on crops or on
diseases that were impacting crops. And the focus of that work is really on the
kind of the basic chemical principles of these materials and how that’s going to
control their activity. So it’s a really kind of basic science approach but by
understanding these basic chemical principles then we can take what we
learn and then we can go to other agencies, like the USDA, where they’re
more likely to fund something practical. And we can take those findings and
pursue something along those lines. Another project that I’m just getting
involved with is with Harvard School of Public Health and a university in
Singapore, Nanyang Technological University. Singapore is a country that
historically has imported a huge percentage of its food. And they
have interest in changing some of that now. So their government is putting a
significant amount of funding into food production. And they have interest in how
nanotechnology can help in some of that. So this new project with Harvard is
looking specifically at urban gardening and hydroponic growth and how
nanotechnology can be used at a relatively small scale to increase food
production. There was a group of us in Singapore in January and we were
visiting in the city, you know, on the tops of buildings rooftop urban gardens
where food production was happening so that type of project’s also going to be
really interesting. [LISA] As you know we’re celebrating this 15-year anniversary of
the signing of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development
Act, and part of the series of podcasts that we’re doing is to reflect on things
that we know now that we didn’t know 15 years ago. And you’ve given us a lot of
examples, but I’m wondering if you could share your thoughts on what the most
important advance or areas that have really emerged in the past 15 years
under this umbrella. [JASON] Well I think the first thing I’d probably mention are areas that that I don’t work in so I don’t know a lot about them but clearly
using nanotechnology for disease treatment and water treatment, I think
are going to be two areas where just the benefit is just enormous. And then
then obviously the other area I would mention would be food production,
although I think this is an area that’s really just getting started. I mean, I
often say this when I give a presentation, if you do a web of science
search for nanotechnology and agriculture you can find papers that
were published in 2000, 2001, 2002. So there’s been a lot of interest in using
nanotechnology for food production, but what’s interesting is when you look over
the years at many of these papers, most of them are review articles. So there’s
been a lot of interest, but it’s kind of a difficult area to work in, so the
research addressing some of these problems would be inefficiency of food
production really just in the last five years is starting to take off. I think
that’s an area where we’re going to see tremendous potential in the future. [LISA] One of the things that we hear a lot about the NNI is the fact that it brought
disparate disciplines together and ecosystem around multidisciplinarity has
has really changed over those 15 years. Can you share your experience in that
respect? [JASON] Yeah I would absolutely agree with that. I mean the NNI, it’s kind of
mantra is this idea of multi or interdisciplinary research and really
that’s the only way to do this type of work. From the beginning I’m
trained as a toxicologist, but run an analytical chemistry lab and work in an
Agricultural Experiment Station. So even my experience alone is multidisciplinary. But this concept of collaborative interdisciplinary work is
really the only way to do this successfully and not just domestically. I
mean, some of my most productive collaborations are with groups overseas. Right now I have active collaborations with groups in Italy, Belgium, Canada,
Mexico, France, and about six different universities in China. All of those
places, there are postdocs or PhD students in a range of disciplines,
everything from material science to soil science to plant biology to molecular
biology, working on different aspects of how nanomaterials are impacting plants
positively or potentially negatively. And as I said, you know, kind of from the
beginning, my areas of research being nanoenabled agriculture and nanotoxicology, they’re not mutually exclusive. If we’re going to come up with a technique that’s going to be sustainably
useful in enhancing food production, it has to be sustainable, which means you
have to understand all of the potential negative aspects of what you’re doing. So
that kind of medo tox perspective never really goes away. And then as a
result, by definition, everything has to be multidiscipline. [LISA] Before we close today,
I wanted to give you the opportunity to share any additional thoughts or things
that you think the listener should know. [JASON] I guess maybe I would say the future is
bright. Although sometimes it doesn’t always feel like that. But I think the
problems we face, in terms of environmental issues and things like
food production, are significant. But the recognition that the scientific
expertise is there, either in future students or in the groups that are
working now, that I think you know as significant as these problems are, I
think the solutions are there, we just need to find them and I think nanotechnology is going to play a major role in a lot of these issues. So
one of the things I enjoy most, I mean I work for government so I don’t I don’t
always get into interact with students as much as I like, but you know when I
present some of my data to undergraduates, or high school students,
or as an experiment station we interact a lot with the public. When I present the
types of things that we’re working on, to those audiences, you know, the
excitement and interest that I see from them is really
compelling. So I think I would say just, the optimism that we can solve some of
these problems I think is really important to keep in mind. [LISA] Thank you for
joining us today for this special 15-year anniversary edition of Stories from
the NNI. If you would like to learn more about nanotechnology, please visit or email us at [email protected] and check back here for more

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