Towards more resilient, disease resistant crops using supercomputers

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In a quest for more disease resistant and resilient crops, researchers have moved a step closer to identifying the nanostructure of celluose – the building block of plant cell walls – by tapping into IBM’s supercomputing power. Beyond resilient crops, researchers are optimistic about the latest development as they claim that the new understanding will enable them to increase the sustainability of the pulp, paper and fibre industry as well.

Researchers at IBM and Universities of Melbourne and Queensland have been able to model the structure and dynamics of cellulose at the molecular level – a development that is pegged as a significant step towards understanding of cellulose biosynthesis and how plant cell walls assemble and function.

The reason researchers are trying to understand cellulose and its nanostructure is that it represents one of the most abundant organic compounds on earth with an estimated 180 billion tonnes produced by plants each year. From the perspective of plants, the process of making cellulose is quite simple as it involves linking simple units of glucose together to form chains, which are then bundled together to form fibres. These fibres then wrap around the cell as the major component of the plant cell wall, providing rigidity, flexibility and defence against internal and external stresses.

From the perspective of researchers, it is a very complex process and the most challenging aspect of decoding the structure of cell walls is the currently available methods. Scientists have been studying cells through traditional physical methods, which are invasive in nature and often cause damage to the plant cells. This is what led researchers to look for alternatives.

Dr Monika Doblin, Research Fellow and Deputy Node Leader at the School of BioSciences at the University of Melbourne said that it’s difficult to work on cellulose synthesis in vitro because once plant cells are broken open, most of the enzyme activity is lost. This made them look for other approaches to study how cellulose is made.

“Thanks to IBM’s expertise in molecular modelling and Victorian Life Sciences Computation Initiative (VLSCI)’s computational power, we have been able to create models of the plant wall at the molecular level which will lead to new levels of understanding about the formation of cellulose.”

Pioneering project

Combining technological advances in computational biology, big data and smarter agriculture, researchers used IBM Blue Gene/Q supercomputer to understand cellulose structures by performing quadrillions of calculations required to model the motions of cellulose atoms.

Researchers have now revealed that within the cellulose structure, there are between 18 and 24 chains present within an elementary microfibril, much less than the 36 chains that had previously been assumed.

Dr John Wagner, Manager of Computational Sciences, IBM Research — Australia, called it a ‘pioneering project’.

Plant cell walls are the first barrier that disease causing pathogens are required to cross. IBM Researcher, Dr. Daniel Oehme said that though they fully don’t understand the molecular pathway of pathogen infection and plant response, they are exploring ways to manipulate the composition of the wall in order to make it more resistant to disease.

Published in Plant Physiology, the research is part of an even long-term program at the VLSCI to develop a 3D computer-simulated model of the entire plant wall.