2017 New Innovator in Food and Agriculture Research

Diwakar Shukla, Ph.D.
University of Illinois

The Foundation for Food and Agriculture Research awarded eight grants to the 2017 New Innovators in Food and Agriculture Research recipients. These awardees will receive a total of $4.8 million over five years. The New Innovator in Food and Agriculture Research award is designed to provide the early investment needed to launch new faculty members into successful scientific careers in food and agriculture. Learn more about the FFAR New Innovators.

Research Project: Innovation at the Nexus of Computational, Membrane and Plant Biology

Diwakar Shukla (left), Ph.D., helps a student with computations.

One hundred billion kilograms of nitrogenous fertilizers are used worldwide every year as modern agriculture practices entail applying large amounts of inorganic nitrogenous fertilizer to maximize crop yield. However, plants only take up about 40% of the applied nitrogen from fertilizers, and the rest is lost to the environment, resulting in extensive air and water pollution. Although nitrogen uptake by plants has been extensively investigated using experimental and computational techniques, the key limitation of our current understanding of nitrogen-uptake process is the lack of information at the molecular level. The current crop, soil and nitrogen uptake models are inherently limited in their ability to provide a fundamental molecular view of the nutrient transport in plants. Molecular understanding of how N-uptake and related signaling works in plants is key to supporting the generation of novel biotechnological solutions for enhanced N-use efficiency in sustainable agriculture.

Therefore, the objective of this research project is to obtain mechanistic understanding of plant nitrogen uptake process and its regulation by developing novel computational biophysics approaches. To obtain the mechanistic insights for the design of enhance nitrate uptake systems, the project aims to integrate ideas from the machine learning based methods into computational approaches for efficient sampling of the free energy landscape of proteins. The proposed methods would find wide applicability in the field of computational biophysics beyond the system investigated in this project. There are no reported molecular modeling studies of the plant nutrient transport in literature. Therefore, the proposed project will not only utilize this ensemble of techniques to address a key agricultural challenge of low nitrogen use efficiency in plants but also provide a unique platform to demonstrate the need, feasibility and impact of computational biophysics in understanding fundamental questions in plant biology.

About Diwakar Shukla, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor, University of Illinois

Diwakar Shukla is a Blue Waters Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Illinois. He is also an affiliate faculty in the Center for Biophysics and Computational biology, Computational Science & Engineering Program, Plant Biology and National Center for Supercomputing Applications. Diwakar holds the title of Blue Waters Professor, an honor that comes with substantial computing and data resources on the Blue Waters Supercomputer. His research work is focused on understanding the complex biological processes using novel physics-based models and techniques.

He started his research career at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, India, where he received B. Tech and M. Tech. degrees in chemical engineering. He then joined Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he received M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in chemical engineering for his work on biophysics of protein solutions. He has received several awards and fellowships for his research including the Peterson award from ACS, Innovation in Biotechnology award from AAPS, COMSEF Graduate student award from AIChE, Institute Silver Medal and Manudhane Award from IIT Bombay.  Before joining University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he worked as a SIMBIOS distinguished postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University in the laboratory of Prof. Vijay S. Pande, investigating cellular signaling processes using large scale distributed computing approaches.

At University of Illinois, his research group is focused on developing computational methods to investigate plant proteins in atomistic detail with an aim to address grand challenges of future food security and sustainability. In particular, Shukla Group is working on two challenging problems in the field of plant molecular biology. First, his group is investigating the mechanism by which plant uptake and transport nutrients such as fertilizer, sugars and water.  Second, how plants sense chemical such as hormones, agrochemicals etc. and induce downstream cellular signaling processes, which play a critical role in drought-resistance, growth and defense.

Lab website: htttp://www.shuklagroup.org