December 20, 2018, by Lexi Earl

Meet the Beacon: Dr Rahul Bhosale

We are very excited to introduce Dr Rahul Bhosale. Rahul was a recent recipient of a BBSRC Discovery Fellowship, which he will be taking up in 2019. At present, Rahul is a Nottingham Research Fellow in Phenomics and Functional Genomics, and a member of the Future Food Beacon of Excellence. Rahul uses functional genomic approaches to dissect molecular mechanisms underlying anatomical traits that mediate stress resilience in crops. His research seeks to understand plant traits and adaptive responses that influence nutrient and water foraging. Prior to becoming an NRF, Rahul was a Newton International Fellow at the University of Nottingham, and completed his PhD at The University of Ghent. He was named on the Forbes 30 under 30 Europe list in Science & Healthcare 2017.

In this interview, Rahul talks to Lexi Earl about his research, his plans for the future, and why he loves being part of the Future Food Beacon.

What is the focus of your research?

Nearly 800 million people suffer from hunger every day and this problem is going to intensify over time due to increasing population pressure, loss in crop yield due to changing climatic conditions and reduction in farmland due to urbanisation. The challenge is to double our crop production within the next decades without expanding agriculture to new farmland. To achieve this, we need to develop or identify new varieties that use soil resources, such as nutrients and water, efficiently. Root architecture (the length and breadth of a root system in the soil) and anatomy (the arrangement of tissues and cells within) critically influences water and nutrient uptake efficiency and therefore can lead to higher crop yield under water and nutrient stress.

My research mainly focuses on root anatomical traits such as aerenchyma (i.e. air-space) formation that enables plants to acquire more soil resources for less metabolic investment and thus improves yield under drought and sub-optimal nutrient conditions. Recent advances in high-throughput root cross-sectioning using Laser Ablation Tomography and imaging techniques, collectively termed the ‘Anatomics’ approach, now allows us to study root anatomical traits in a large number of varieties or a population of crops. I am combining this anatomics approach with functional genomics techniques such as Genome Wide Association Studies (GWAS), CRISPR-gene editing and Single Cell and bulk RNA sequencing to understand molecular mechanisms underlying aerenchyma formation in maize. I am also using molecular assisted breeding approaches to translate such knowledge into other under invested crops such as pearl millet. In the long-term, I plan to expand this novel approach to study other anatomical traits in maize as well as other crops.

In parallel, I am using my multi-disciplinary expertise (in bioinformatics, mathematical modelling, and molecular and cell biology) to actively participate in several national and international collaborative projects for determining spatio-temporal gene regulatory networks underlying plant developmental processes such as endoreplication, root-hair and lateral root development, root penetration and root tropic responses as gravitropism and hydrotropism.

What brought you to Nottingham and the Future Food Beacon?

I worked with Prof. Malcolm Bennett here at the Sutton Bonington Campus of the University of Nottingham from 2015-2018, initially as a Newton International Fellow and then as a research fellow on a Royal Society Global Challenge Research Fund grant. I really enjoy working on this campus as it has experts from multiple disciplines, making it a vibrant and stimulating research environment. It is also equipped with all the infrastructure required for my research. With the Future Food Beacon, the campus is becoming more fascinating as new researchers are joining and new infrastructure is being developed. Everyone is collectively working towards the bigger goal of addressing the Global Food Security problem. Such initiatives naturally generate more opportunities for collaborations and increases synergies among researchers. That is why I wanted to be a Future Food Beacon team member.

What does a typical day look like?

My typical day is usually packed with multiple activities, where I manage my time to work on my own research project, supervise students, tend to academic responsibilities, and discuss ongoing research and new ideas with other researchers.

Do you ever think about how your research affects ordinary people?

I come from an agricultural background and grew up on a farm. I always therefore think about translating the fundamental knowledge learned from my research – using breeding or genetic improvement programmes towards developing stress tolerant and yield improving varieties – that will directly benefit farmers. One of the aims of my project is to translate knowledge learned from maize to other ‘orphan crops’ such pearl millet, which is a staple crop in Africa and South East Asia, where hunger is a major concern.

How did you get involved with work in Senegal?

I am collaborating with researchers at Nottingham as well as Prof. Laurent Laplaze, IRD France, and Dr Ndjido Kane, Institut Senegal de Recherches Agricoles to work on pearl millet. I tapped into this network and will be working with them for one of the aims of my research project during the fellowship.

Do you have a greatest career moment?

I am very excited to be the recipient of a BBSRC Discovery Fellowship. I will be taking this up in 2019. In 2017, my research was recognised by Forbes and I was selected as an exceptional talent under the age of 30. I was honoured on the Forbes 30 under 30 list in the Science and Healthcare Category in Europe.

What advice do you have for young scientists?

My background is multidisciplinary and that helped me in my previous stages of career. I would advise young scientists to widen their skill set and expertise in computational as well as experimental techniques.

How does Future Food help you achieve your goals?

My immediate goal is to successfully transit from an independent researcher to a group leader. The Future Food Beacon fellowship will allow me to apply for funding to build my team.  The Future Food Beacon initiative supports a wide range of research projects with local as well as global partners. Thus, the Future Food Beacon will not only allow me to foster my current network of collaborators but also expand it further to answer important questions and challenges in my research.

Where do you get inspiration from?

My inspiration for becoming a scientist is related to my experience growing up on a farm in India. We had three seasons of dry weather, rain and winter. It amazed me how the different weather and temperature cycles affected plant growth and development. That sparked my curiosity to become a scientist. Now, I get my inspiration from my wife. She is a structural biologist, working on global health issues.

Is there anything you are looking forward to?

In my previous research, I have been using bulk RNA sequencing to determine molecular mechanisms underlying developmental processes at organ and tissue scale. In this project, I am really looking forward to using Single Cell RNAseq technique to determine mechanisms regulated at cellular scale. This will help me significantly broaden my skill set. Additionally, I am very excited about working directly with farmers and breeders in Africa during this project.

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