Kevin Folta: The FAFDL Interview



Crop scientist Kevin Folta of the University of Florida is renowned for his tireless efforts in science communication, working to cut through the layers of misunderstanding and piles of bullshit for consumers and citizens anxious about the foods they feed their families. He’s less well known for the work he does in the lab studying the effects of light on plant properties and behavior.

Looking at the impact of the light spectrum on plant growth and crop traits at the genetic level, his lab uses applied genomics to pair plant breeding with LED and other lighting technologies to nudge crops in useful directions, increasing nutritional profiles and improving flavor. The insights can even be used on fruits and vegetables after they’ve been picked.

“We can now realistically use and deploy this technology at an industrial level,” Folta says.

The research has advanced to the point that appliance companies are interested in redesigning refrigerator lights, perhaps even using ultraviolet light to provide an anti-microbial environment. The refrigerator of the future, Folta says, could operate the opposite of today’s refrigerator: instead of the light going on when you reach in for a cold snack, it would go off. The light would go on again, perhaps in different combinations in different compartments, when you close
the door.

Light conditions, Folta says, could help retain the nutritional value that is already in a vegetable or fruit in storage.

Even more exciting, lights could be used to amp up the nutritional value.

“We’re testing now how to get plants to produce more beneficial compounds like folate or vitamin C, or important anti-cancer compounds,” Folta says.

The technology was tested using Arabidopsis thaliana, horticulture’s version of a white lab rat, on a grant from the National Science Foundation. Folta’s lab moved up the food chain from there to test kale, strawberries, blueberries and tomatoes. In kale, sequential treatments of darkness, blue light, red and far-red light produced variations in growth, development and nutritional value.

Colquhoun and Folta’s labs also showed that specific light treatments altered fragrance and flavor of blueberries, strawberries and tomatoes. The key is figuring out which wavelengths to use at which intensity, duration and direction. Once the combinations are worked out, a small farmer with a relatively simple light array could use them to add value to a crop by changing its color, size or nutritional content.

“This allows us to be the plant whisperers,” Folta says. “It allows us to tell the plant how to behave, what we want and how to produce it.”

Just a few weeks before Professor Folta was awarded the 2016 Borlaug CAST Communication Award, he sat down with the FAFDL community for a chat. Our community is well aware of his scicomm efforts, so after touching quickly on that, we dug in, to get a better understanding of his research.

[The interview has been lightly edited for continuity. Questions by various members of the community are grouped together under the label “FAFDL”.]

On Science Communication and Having Target on Your Back

With respect to your work as a science communicator:

What were the biggest realizations in the last year that you think would be most important for anyone who wants to dive into science communication (#scicomm) around hot button issues?

What are the most effective ways to get the message out and how can fans of science do to help get that message out?

Kevin Folta: The number one thing is to stop treating dissenters as enemies. Yes, they are obnoxious at times, but these are people that have been fooled by evil people and we shouldn’t be angry at them. If we ever stand a chance to change them, we have to be teachers over antagonists.

The second is aggressive transparency. You can’t give them a ‘gotcha’ even a little one. A couple dollars to support an educational event puts you on the front of the New York Times, alleged trading of grants for favors, and being in the “inner circle of industry consultants”. What a crock of shit.

FAFDL: How do you do aggressive transparency?

KF: You have to give everyone more information than they ever could want. I describe every reimbursed travel, every donut, every cab ride. If they are saying I “fail to disclose” they are wrong. Now they get everything.

FAFDL: What are some of the biggest hurdles facing the ag science community?

KF: Right now the biggest hurdle is funding. We’re looking at 5-10% funding rates, which means you need to write 20 grants to get one, if you are as good as everyone –  and that’s tough. Funding is tight, students are expensive, postdocs cost a lot too. It is hard to find money to do the work.

FAFDL: I’ve noticed over the years since you became Chairperson of the Horticulture department at UF, that you seem to be encouraging the rest of the faculty, and Extension scientists to be more pro-active in directly engaging the public with science outreach, using many of the social media tools out there to accomplish it … an effort that we applaud.

Given that your efforts also painted a big target on your back, I assume there was some strong reluctance from them, so how did you go about overcoming it, showing the advantages, despite the drawbacks?  I have Dr. Klee and the other tomato researchers in mind … pretty sure there are others in the citrus group.

KF: That’s a good question. Folks like Klee and other more seasoned scientists are the most reluctant to get out there, but he’ll always be glad to talk to a science-interested public audience. Others tell me that I’m a good researcher and administrator and that I shouldn’t waste my time talking to the public. That’s sad. That’s the important function in my job as a land-grant scientist.

Of course, I do tell people to get involved and learn how to talk to the public. I also tell them about Florida’s lovely sunshine laws (Public transparency laws that allow the public to issue FOIA-like requests for any correspondence relating to taxpayer funded work).

The main drawback is time. We’re all up to our ears in work, trying to publish, deal with student issues and raising funds. Taking time out to talk to the public is another full time job. I’m glad to do it, but understand why others are not so thrilled.

FAFDL: I loved Dr. Klee’s opening comments at the Carnegie presentation … cue to the 9:15 mark, after the introduction. (Fora TV: Why Doesn’t My Supermarket Tomato Have Any Flavor and Why Should I Care?”)

KF: Yes, he’s a peach.

Research and Development

FAFDL: What first got you interested in your area of research?

KF: I’ve been interested in science since I was born. My folks really fostered that. My specific area comes from gardens as a kid and growing up with lots of fresh fruits and veggies. I ended up in light because that’s the lab I landed in in 1987. One more door down and I’d be studying raccoon penises.

FAFDL: Why light? What first sparked your interest to see if various wavelengths of light could impact plants in different ways?

KF: Light is information to plants. We always think it is photosynthesis, that’s important. But blue, red, green, UV and invisible light off the edge of the red spectrum end strongly influence how a plant grows and behaves. We’re using that information to talk to plants in a language they understand.

FAFDL: Does manipulating light stress out the plants, or do they not have biological expectations of different wavelengths at different times of day the way animals do in relation to regulating circadian rhythms?

KF: Absolutely. But one of the effects of stress is a change in flux through different pathways to produce secondary metabolites to cope with stress. This can have a positive or negative effect on antioxidants, flavors, whatever. That’s why it works! And yes, the circadian oscillator is robust in plants, so when we monkey wrench that system with freaked out pulses, plants do funny things. That’s cool, because we can unlock genetic potential that is masked by normalcy. Talk about Frankenfood.


FAFDL: Do plants/crops have similar responses to the various types of light or are there differences by species?

KF: Yes, plants that are adapted to shade seem to rely on the red portion of the spectrum more. Ferns, etc get a lot of cues from longer wavebands. They even have specialized photosensors that are quite novel in the plant world.

Otherwise, we find a great deal of variation for light responses across plant types. Because flowering is light controlled to some degree, a lot of crop plants have mutations in light sensing systems that were the basis of selection. That’s pretty cool that we rely on mutants for food!

FAFDL: Has your lab identified specific genes responsive to types of light? If so, is there an opportunity for crop improvements via genetic engineering?

KF: The exact circuits that regulate light responses have been known well since the 1990’s, at least the major hardware. There’s some possibility for GE, but as mentioned above, a lot of important traits are already based on light signaling defects/enhancements. I like the idea of controlling the light quality with night breaks from wandering LED robots or reflective mulches that skew the spectrum.

FAFDL: You had me at robots.

How does changing lights affect the soil chemistry? Does the plant absorb different nutrients, or does it release different chemicals? Is the microbiome population changed?

KF: I’m not sure. What we do know is that the plant body is an excellent fiber optical cable, and transmits green light quite well. I’d like to explore that more someday. That could potentially modulate gene expression in the roots that would then make decisions about nutrient uptake. I should play with this sometime. Hopefully before I retire in 30 years.

Screen Shot 2016-08-29 at 2.19.37 PM
Vertical farms currently rely on LED light.

FAFDL: Are there applications for these insights for greenhouses to use gels and tints, rather than relying on LEDs in indoor operations?

How do you apply these insights at scale? Is it about breeding to plants to better respond to a given environment? Or is this going to be mostly applied in vertical farms and large greenhouses?

KF: There are ideas about using films or coatings on greenhouses or on the plants themselves. People have talked about this for some time. The issue is, you don’t necessarily want to diminish the fluence rate (intensity +/-) of incoming light. That’s why supplemental light is better than filters.

Right now I’m thinking about the scale of vertical farms and how we can grow more with less. I’d love to develop varieties that require fewer photons and treatments that keep them happy. Growing plants in urban environments needs new thinking, as there is plenty of money there but not much plant biology.

We are currently developing new varieties for those environments.

FAFDL: Whenever I read about innovative discoveries in food crops, I tend to visualise how it would assist the future group of people who will inhabit Mars or other planets

Does NASA, or any other space agency, fund studies or show any interest in the agriculture technology in your university, Kevin?

KF: Yes, but they used to do a lot more. The bottom line is, any mission will have to grow food on site. At $26k /kg of mass, it is expensive to bring anything other than seeds. But growing plants in space is tough. When they can’t figure out a gravity vector they stress out. When they don’t see normal light/dark, that’s stress.

This is where our work with narrow bandwidth light has huge applications. Can we control when something flowers? Sure. Can we control size? Can we get plants to manufacture drugs? Sure. These are all on the next frontier and will have ot be part of any space flight.

Plants. In. Space!
Plants. In. Space!

Taking the Laboratory to Homes, Schools, and Farms

FAFDL: At one point I heard you say that you had tomato seeds available for interested parties. Is that something that is still on offer?

KF: Go here! (New Flavorful Tomato Cultivars For The Home Gardener) Slight charge, but you get to do cool experiments too!

One FAFDL member, Brooke Fotheringham, a teacher had a few specific questions about bringing these insights and technologies to her students.

BF: Thank you for your outreach, I know it has come with a great deal of stress, but you are reaching people. A little more than a year ago I held very different sentiments about transgenic crops because I simply hadn’t been exposed to the evidence supporting them.

Do you have any recommendations for experiments (for example easy to grow plant choices and light colors likely to provoke visually observable differences) I could do with elementary school aged children to get them thinking about this?

Absolutely. I can send you lights to do it too. Red Russian kale is super responsive to far-red light. Lettuces like Red Sails get deep red with the addition of blue, and you can chase it back to green by adding green light. Pretty neat. You actually can paint plants with light, and the kids get into that.

I would very much be interested in trying that. I was thinking of using gels because I have a bunch left over from lighting design projects, but having read your previous answer, I will be hitting you up for those lights at some point. Thank you.

Kevin and Dave Gillespie, an Ontario farmer had an interesting exchange.

DG: I grow field crops (corn, soybeans, wheat) and we have very little control over light. I remember a theory that tillage should be done at night, as weed seeds need light exposure to trigger growth. It is also interesting that soybeans will normally mature at the same time even with different planting dates (day length sensing )

Has there been any work in exposing seeds to different light prior to planting, or to trigger ripening and avoiding dessicants?

KF: Cool idea. I know what you mean about tilling at night. They figured that out in a neat way, a long time ago when someone tilled at night but there was a big spotlight on one part of the farm. It was the only place weeds grew.

It might be possible to trigger or speed ripening with some wavelength, the question is, how do you treat a field? I guess drones are getting pretty good, and lights are getting cheap. It might be worth some brain time.

DG: I was imagining something on a sprayer boom. Like if you could hit it with the right wavelength of light for a few milliseconds and it would ripen. Or dry down. Maybe I have spent too much time staring at green soybean stems.

FAFDL: Would this light research open up more options for growing crops in places with extreme light conditions or short seasons?

I’m thinking of the N. America’s far north in particular

KF: Yes, the big trick in places like Finland is photoperiod, and greenhouse grown crops are more and more common there. It costs too much to ship them. Therefore, if you can devise light recipes to grow plants indoors, you’re doing something good. The problem is electricity costs, but we’re getting better at that too.

FAFDL: Is this research opening up complementary research into greenhouses?

KF: Sure. The problem is that when I was screaming about how to do this in the mid 2000’s nobody was listening. The light folks went on and built lights without thinking about the plants. Now they are rethinking this.

The full Q&A thread can be found here.

Folta and Frank. Formidable to foes.
Folta and Frank. Formidable to foes.

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