By Jim Stafford
Copyright © 2013, The Oklahoma Publishing Company
Long before Wolf Scheible accepted a position as principal investigator for The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation in 2012, he knew the Foundation by its reputation for groundbreaking work in plant genomics.
“The Noble Foundation is known all over the world for its plant research,” Scheible told me during a visit to the Ardmore campus. “The Foundation offers researchers so many advantages — tremendous facilities, unparalleled support and two other divisions that can move research from the laboratory to the field.”
A native of Germany, Scheible is a biochemist and molecular biologist who established his own reputation for world class research as a scientist in the Max Planck Society, the country’s most prestigious research institution.
Scheible’s journey to Ardmore was influenced by a former Max Planck colleague, Michael Udvardi, who made the move to the Noble Foundation in 2006. Udvardi is now the director of the Noble Foundation’s Plant Biology Division.
“Michael is my good friend,” Scheible said. “We had a lot of common interests, and we published many papers together.”
Scheible’s research focuses on how plants efficiently use nutrients, especially phosphorous. He earned a Ph.D. at the University of Heidelberg and served a post-doctorate fellowship at Stanford University in the late 1990s.
“Phosphorous is an essential element for life”, Scheible said. “There is no other element on the planet that can replace phosphorous and you can’t produce food without it. And phosphorous is in short supply.”
Scheible called the shrinking supply of phosphorous a crisis for every person in the world, whether they know it or not. Most Americans only know of phosphorous because they see it on the fertilizer aisle at their local lawn supply store.
Phosphorous is produced through the mining of phosphate rock. The Global Phosphorous Research Institute estimates that mining can only produce enough easily accessible phosphorous to meet demand for another 30-40 years.
At the same time, the world’s population is projected to grow from 7 billion to 9 billion within the next 40 years. How will farmers grow enough food without sufficient access to the phosphorous needed to sustain life?
It’s up to scientists like Scheible to determine how plants use phosphorous and engineer new plants that can use it more efficiently.
Scheible searches for ways that plants signal that bigger root or bigger leaves are needed. The next step would be to control that process so that plants would need less nutrients such as phosphorous or nitrogen to thrive.
“If you can identify a specific regulatory molecule which is important for changing root growth, then we can change the root system,” he said. ““We basically want to generate desired root traits that can benefit agriculture.”
Scheible directs a state-of-the-art laboratory with five group members all focused on the same mission. “This is a fantastic place to work,” Scheible said.
Jim Stafford is a communications specialist with i2E Inc. in Oklahoma City.