Despite the clear importance of roots in agricultural systems, the practical difficulty of working below-ground has limited rational improvement through agronomic practice or plant breeding. Over the past decades, however, Penn State has established leadership in root biology by delivering conceptual and technological advances that have opened up real possibilities to optimize the roots and rhizosphere of our crops. Specifically, Penn State root research has resulted in tens of millions of dollars of extramural funding, two interdisciplinary research training projects, two successful startup companies, novel research tools and concepts, and most importantly, tangible benefits for global food security and agricultural sustainability. Indeed, root biology and plant/soil interactions have been identified as core strengths of the Department of Plant Science. Three new faculty in Plant Science are experts in root symbioses with beneficial microbes. Root interactions with the soil are largely mediated by the rhizosphere, the soil near the root that is heavily influenced by root processes, inhabited by rich and complex microbial communities that have important effects on the capture of water and nutrients, soil quality, and plant health. This research domain, therefore, has synergies with existing Penn State initiatives, including the Microbiome Center and the Food, Energy, and Water nexus.
The Center will position Penn State for continued excellence in this critical interdisciplinary field and foster new collaborations that open unique research avenues. Significantly, the Center model will integrate initiatives that have run previously at the individual group level, establishing the cross-disciplinary base that will be required to shift from the exploration of rhizosphere biology towards real-world impact. We envisage direct recruitment of additional expertise, alongside a role for center to engage with other public or private partners.