Promising plasma research by Future Technologies & enabling Plasma Processes (FTPP) lead researcher Dr. Rao Mentreddy, an Alabama A&M University (AAMU) professor of biological and environmental sciences, could boost food production and potentially be a fundamental change for agriculture if it can be applied across common agricultural crops.
At the same time, Dr. Mentreddy is also leading research to make processed foods safer for consumption without chemicals or irradiation by using plasma processes.
“Cold or low-temperature plasma has tremendous implications for crop improvement, food safety and food quality in Alabama,” says Dr. Mentreddy, who has been at AAMU since 2003.
“We are pursuing two-pronged research on low-temperature plasma applications, to improve crop productivity and quality, and to improve food safety,” says Dr. Mentreddy, originally from Hyderabad, India.
“We are currently working on the relative efficiency of low-temperature argon and helium plasma in improving seed germination, seedling growth, nutrient and phytochemical profiles, and drought tolerance of microgreens crops,” he says. “As well, we are evaluating the mode of action of low-temperature plasma for preventing microbial contamination of fresh poultry meat and cold-smoked salmon.”
FTPP-sponsored low-temperature plasma agricultural research led by Dr. Mentreddy has yielded three interesting results.
Low-temperature plasma enabled turmeric rhizomes, prematurely harvested at six months after planting as opposed to nine months, to sprout and produce a rhizome yield.
Seeds exposed to low-temperature argon or helium plasma resulted in plants expressing improvement in drought tolerance, as evidenced in longer roots and comparable seedling biomass compared with plants from untreated control seeds.
Plants exposed to low-temperature plasma subjected to drought stress showed genetic expression for drought tolerance.
“We plan to expand our research into improving grain quality, beginning with reducing antinutrients and increasing antioxidants in bean crop seeds,” Dr. Mentreddy says. “Our preliminary research has shown that low temperature plasma reduces antinutrients such as tannins, lectins, phytic acid and oligosaccharides that influence the bioavailability and digestibility of nutrients and minerals.”
An Alabama coalition of nine universities and a research corporation that’s managed at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH), FTPP is supported by a $20 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and aims to transition plasma research into agricultural, manufacturing, space science, space weather prediction and other applications, establishing Alabama as a Southeastern regional hub for plasma science expertise and creating thousands of high-paying technical careers in the state and region.
Dr. Mentreddy’s interest in agricultural uses for plasma was piqued when UAH’s Dr. Vladamir Kolobov, an adjunct professor and a principal research scientist in the Center for Space Plasma and Aeronomic Research (CSPAR) at UAH, and Dr. Gary Zank, director of CSPAR, gave Dr. Mentreddy journal papers on plasma applications for improving seed germination and food safety.
In 2016, Dr. Kolobov and Dr. Zank invited Dr. Mentreddy and his colleague, AAMU research associate professor Dr. Ernst Cebert, to join Connecting the Plasma Universe to Plasma Technology in Alabama (CPU2AL), a previous $20 million plasma grant from NSF’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR).
“That triggered my interest in evaluating low-temperature plasma for improving crop productivity and food safety,” Dr. Mentreddy says.
FTPP research sponsorship is vital to unraveling the mode of action of low-temperature plasma in improving crop productivity and food safety, he says.
“It is necessary to continue productive interdisciplinary research collaborations among agricultural science, plant and food microbiology, food science and physics at AAMU that were initiated during the CPU2AL project,” Dr. Mentreddy says.
He is working to develop a skilled Alabama plasma workforce by training graduate students and providing immersive learning experiences for undergraduate students in plasma research at AAMU, he says, and FTPP support is important to that effort, as well.
“We must continue to provide training to several undergraduate and graduate students using inter- and intra-disciplinary research.”