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SMART Collaborative Research Stories: Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) and Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL)

Collaboration plays a pivotal role in advancing scientific research to solve pressing global challenges of societal impact and interest. In this series, we delve into SMART’s collaborations with other research and academic institutions in Singapore, shedding light on their experiences and learnings and the importance of collaboration in research.


This feature highlights the collaboration between SMART and Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL) within the Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) interdisciplinary research group (IRG).


DiSTAP aims to address high-impact problems in agriculture, both in Singapore and globally. DiSTAP’s research focuses on developing methods for the continuous and rapid measurements of important plant metabolites and hormones for novel discovery and deeper understanding and control of plant biosynthetic pathways. Since its inception in 2018, SMART has maintained a highly productive scientific collaboration with TLL, leveraging TLL’s expertise in plant development and engineering to validate and apply DiSTAP’s novel techniques and analytical tools on a wide range of crops that are important to both urban farming and global agriculture.


Dr Mervin Chunyi Ang, Associate Scientific Director at DiSTAP


Within DiSTAP, SMART and TLL have collaborated on various successful research projects over the years. Speaking on the mutually beneficial nature and impact of this partnership, Dr Mervin Chunyi Ang, Associate Scientific Director at DiSTAP, said, “TLL researchers and principal investigators are world-class plant biologists with unparalleled knowledge of plant stress biology, genetics, gene editing and agrochemical treatments. Collaboration with TLL provides us access to knowledge on how we can best apply our novel analytical tools and optimise the entire plant growth process from seed to harvest. TLL also possesses state-of-the-art conventional analytical tools that can be used to validate our sensors in different plant species.”


Dr Rajani Sarojam, Senior Principal Investigator at TLL, and also Principal Investigator at DiSTAP


“Collaboration with DiSTAP scientists has benefitted TLL because it has enabled the development of an effective multidisciplinary team. TLL scientists are plant biologists, and working with DiSTAP under this collaboration allows the incorporation of different sets of expertise in different areas, such as nanotechnology, Raman spectroscopy, and novel biomaterials, and leverage these innovative solutions to achieve a common goal of sustainable urban farming,” added Dr Rajani Sarojam, Senior Principal Investigator at TLL, and also Principal Investigator at DiSTAP.


DiSTAP and TLL researchers in a meeting to explore the utility of AI and machine learning tools for urban agriculture


One of the most significant research projects at DiSTAP is the plant hormone nanosensor project, which created a series of world-firsts in nanosensors for living plants based on the concept of corona phase molecular recognition (CoPhMoRe), pioneered by DiSTAP’s Co-lead Principal Investigator, Professor Michael Strano. The CoPhMoRe technique creates nanoparticles that act like natural antibodies that recognise and lock onto specific molecules, which enabled the successful creation of plant hormone nanosensors that perform non-destructive, real-time, in vivo detection of chemical signallers, enabling farmers to intervene and take remedial actions to reduce yield loss in agriculture. 


This longstanding collaboration led to the development in 2021 of the first-ever nanosensor to enable rapid testing of synthetic auxin plant hormones, 1-naphthalene acetic acid (NAA) and 2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2,4-D), which are used for regulating plant growth and as herbicides respectively. This was followed by another world-first in 2023 with the advent of the first-ever nanosensor designed to detect and distinguish gibberellins (GAs), a class of hormones in plants important for growth. Most recently, through a new and unique process of design, synthesis, and testing, a highly selective plant nanobionic sensor for salicylic acid (SA) has now been developed, further advancing the success of the CoPhMore concept.


TLL is a vital contributor to the project with its expertise and resources, providing plant growth chambers and indoor farms as test beds, which allow researchers to validate the efficacy of the nanosensors. TLL researchers have successfully applied the hormone nanosensors for early asymptomatic diagnosis of different stresses, such as low light, nutrient deficiency, and diseases, in leafy vegetables, which are important crops in urban farming. The development of diagnostic tools to indicate plant health status at an asymptomatic stage greatly benefits farmers, providing them with an opportunity to alleviate the stress before irreversible plant damage occurs.


TLL and DiSTAP researchers interacting at a poster symposium


To foster effective collaboration and communication, the researchers convene regularly through online and in-person technical meetings and plan and execute experiments at both laboratories. Biannually, a virtual, poster or internal symposium is organised to facilitate each research group’s progress updates and enable cross-pollination of research ideas.


Inter-organisational and interdisciplinary collaboration is imperative to research and scientific advancement. “To address rising global challenges like food security, it is important to explore beyond the confines of a single discipline and bring researchers with different expertise and complementary skills to work as a team towards a common goal. The combination of a broad range of expertise and perspectives encourages the generation of unique and creative solutions leading to transformative discoveries,” said Dr Rajani Sarojam.

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