Unlocking plants’ hidden 24hr clocks can help global food production and sustainability

“Our aim is to grow affordable fresh fruit and vegetables for Britain’s hard-pressed families, indoors, in a completely controlled environment, in a way that minimizes damage to the planet, using the technology of the future.” Jamie Burrows, CEO of Vertical Future 

Vertical Future is leading a project with partners Cambridge University to unlock the 24-hour circadian clock in plants. The work has the potential to make global food production more sustainable, more affordable, and deliver higher yields.

Known as ‘Chronoculture,’ this new research will extend the use of the circadian clock in agriculture, where the timing of events like flowering is essential for the growth and survival of plants in both natural and indoor environments. The team at Vertical Future and Cambridge University will use the discovery that plants, which have evolved outdoors in changing day & night lengths, will also perform poorly without a substantial period of dark in controlled environments.

Understanding the hidden circadian clock in plants will allow for precise agronomic intervention in the delivery of food, light, and water, enabling game-changing crop improvement. Dr. Jennifer Bromley at Vertical Future says, “Chronoculture will give us an incredibly important tool to help make food production more sustainable. Understanding the daily rhythms of plants and their responsiveness to temperature, water, pests, and herbicides will ultimately increase crop yields. We hope we can use this collaboratively on a global scale to help feed the world and solve some of the food production issues that are facing many millions of people today.” 

The project is being run in trials at a commercial UK vertical farm owned by Syan Farms using Vertical Future proprietary technology, including its software system, DIANA. It is hoped that unlocking these hidden clocks in plants will allow them to accelerate the growth of a whole head of lettuce from 8 weeks to just 5 weeks, a reduction of 37.5%.

Plants' internal clocks
Almost every plant cell possesses an internal clock that resets daily based on the timing of key events such as dawn and dusk. This clock has evolved to allow plants to regulate daily and seasonal activities for optimal growth and reproduction. Learning how to optimize the time of the day affects a plant’s physiology, metabolism, and gene expression and can help regulate flowering, biomass, photosynthesis, water use, pathogen defense, and temperature stress response.

By focusing on CEA, the UK farming sector can benefit from a shift to year-round production of crops such as lettuce, of which at up to 80% may be imported in winter. Through increased yields and shorter cycle times, vertical farms should be in a position to sell crops at price points demanded by supermarkets, although a certain level of scale needs to be reached. Vertical Future believes that through this project and its learnings, it can deliver a 37.5% improvement in yield and a 14% reduction in energy consumption in production. UK grown crops will also reduce import reliance and save an estimated 247 g CO2/ Kg produce in transport costs.

The project is running throughout 2022 and will have a huge impact on global food security. The project will also push the UK to the forefront of the global CEA industry alongside the USA. Dr. Jim Stevens, Lead Scientist at Vertical Future, says, “this collaborative project brings together visionary entrepreneurs and scientists. We know that vertical farming is part of our agricultural future, and we hope to use new technologies and insights gained from this work to deliver high-quality, locally grown, and inexpensive leafy greens to consumers and turn scientific results into a competitive advantage for UK vertical farming.”

Prof. Alex Webb of the University of Cambridge says, “I am very excited that we are working with Vertical Future to develop Chronoculture, monitoring tools, and agricultural practice to improve lettuce production in indoor vertical farms.”

For more information:
Vertical Future


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