Avinash Karn is a University of Missouri graduate with a Ph.D. in Plant Sciences.
“Everyone on this planet follows this one religion very rigorously, and that is the religion of the stomach. Everybody gets hungry. And somebody has to produce that [food].”
Avinash (Avi) Karn, a Ph.D. graduate from the division of Plant Sciences, is on a mission to improve agricultural practices by looking at the most basic part of a plant: the genetics.
Karn grew up in a small town in Nepal where roughly eighty percent of the population is involved with agriculture. Rice is the staple crop for the area, and they grow a lot of it.
“It’s just pretty to go outside and see the luscious green and the aromatic rice; the field itself is just very fragrant,” says Karn. “But at the same time, the weather changes. Nepal is mostly hills and mountains, but there are also plains like the Mid-West. If it rains in the hills, you can see this flood that comes and washes up all the rice paddy fields.”
Unfortunately, many of the farmers who plant each season are not socio-economically secure, and replanting washed out fields is not an option.
“That is the story that I can see from my house. I see people looking to see which patches in the field are gone due to the flood. Should I replace it or should I just work with what I have? There is something that needs to be done, but there is no immediate help.”
After seeing this happen each year, Karn became interested in ways to improve the crops that are grown for food. This started him on a journey that led him to the United States and the University of Missouri.
Intrigued by the educational system in the US, Karn decided to attend Truman State University for his undergraduate degree, studying agriculture and biology. It was a good fit for his academic and personal interests. Soon, however, he realized that he had much more to offer the field of plant sciences, and looked for a way to combine his love for plants with the opportunity to develop new resources to face various agricultural challenges. Karn met his current advisor, Dr. Sherry Flint-Garcia, at a conference, and decided to pursue research on corn genetics, as it allowed him to capture both his interest in agriculture and his desire to help improve the world’s food supply.
“What I find in the lab may impact my life, but also someone I don’t know and never get a chance to meet or see. That always motivated me and kept me going.”
Karn, who focused on Plant Breeding, Genetics, and Genomics here at MU, works with corn (maize) and its wild relative, Teosinte, evaluating their genetic diversity for various agronomical, kernel quality, and nutritional traits.
“The major proportion of our daily diet, in terms of calories and nutrition, comes from grain crops such as maize, rice and wheat; and maize is both economically and nutritionally important crop,” Karn explained. “Teosinte contains greater genetic diversity compared to domesticate maize lines, and in my research, I am evaluating the performance of genetic biodiversity encompassed in Teosinte for various traits such as adaptation, seed composition, and fitness in comparison to Maize.”
In other words, Karn is looking to determine if there are any novel genetic variations in Teosinte that were left behind when the corn domestication process began. This could be utilized to improve the modern germplasm of maize for producers and consumers, as well as many industrial applications.
Many of the staple crops produced today, including rice, corn, and wheat, have wild ancestors. Corn as we know it today originated in southern Mexico where “it grew like a weed.” After many years of the domestication process and plant breeding, it has become a staple crop.
“It was molded and shaped into what we see as corn today,” he said.
Through that process, corn went through a “bottleneck” event which resulted in a severe loss in the genetic diversity of the several selected traits. Genetic diversity is important for the overall success of the crop.
“I’m trying to see if there are stronger alleles [variations within the gene] that we can use to improve our corn. That is, seeds with higher protein, higher oil, starches, reduction in inputs of such as fertilizers and pesticides etc,” he said.
Karn cited the Great Famine in Ireland during the mid-1800s as an example of what can happen from lack of genetic diversity, as potatoes are propagated by cutting other potatoes and planting them. Essentially, they are clones of the parent plant. Corn is grown mainly for its seed, the kernel, and that is one of the part of the plant that Karn examines with his research.
“Enriching biodiversity of grain crops holds a basis of optimism to meet the present and future global demand for food,” said Karn. “For instance, wild ancestors of grain crops harbor novel agronomic and domestication traits that are waiting for discovery. [These traits] can rigorously assist plant breeders to develop and deliver agronomically improved and nutritionally rich crop varieties broadening the efforts in securing global food, feed and fuel demand.”
Research findings to date show that the wild relative of corn is rich in genetic biodiversity. Thus, there is an opportunity to use some of these novel genetic variations from the wild relatives to improve corn through traditional plant breeding and biotechnologies.
In doing so, researchers can improve the plant to help human nutrition, health, and environment for both developed and developing communities. Karn explained that climate change is going to have a large effect on crop production.
“One of the parts of my research is looking at if there are alleles that affect crop adaptation, such as in response to climate change to provide tolerance to several stress such as low-water, drought conditions?”
One part of the Karn’s dissertation research also focused on the role of teosinte alleles in the overall genetic architecture of maize. So far, this study found that most of the rare alleles that were left out during the domestication process of corn reduced plant fitness, but there are some beneficial ones that can possibly help with tolerance to certain diseases, or stressed environmental conditions.
Food production and a stable world food supply are at risk as the world population grows and climate change affects growing conditions.
“The big challenges that we will be facing, not immediately by our generation but the next generation, is the population growth. We are already hitting over 7 billion.”
World resources are already limited.
“To keep the supply and demand even, we have to keep production at the same capacity. How are we going to do it?”
Researchers like Karn are working to improve the germplasm of corn for better plants, and thus, a better food supply for the future.
“We will have to redesign using plant breeding and various biotechnologies to keep people fed. We have to think about our kids. What are they going to be facing with the changes that are happening to the planet?”
Karn finds happiness and contentment in helping others. For him, research is not about winning an award or recognition. It is improving the world he sees around him.
“Plant scientists have a big challenge to tackle: food security and the problem with climate change. Today’s plant scientists will have to redesign and make improvements, not for themselves, but to keep the supply and demand even and keep everyone happy. We need to improve the crop, the food we eat, so that everyone is fed and happy.”
He is taking on a big task with this work, but he hopes to do just that, use his research to help people of the world.
Karn graduated from MU in May of 2017, and is currently working as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign.