Tasty Vegetables that are Sustainable — NUS DBS Agricultural Research

Food security is a major concern in Singapore. Currently, only 14% of leafy vegetables are produced locally while the rest are imported from overseas. With reliance on imported food, Singapore can be adversely affected when there are disruptions to overseas food supply. Given Singapore’s land constraints, high-tech indoor farming may be a solution to increase local vegetable production. However, indoor farming is a relatively new field in Singapore, and many existing crop cultivars are selected for outdoor traditional soil-based farming and hence may not have been bred for the environment of indoor farms, nor have characteristics that could be adapted or exploited for indoor farming.

One of our incubatees at the NUS Agritech Centre NUS Department of Biological Science (DBS) has been actively involved in agricultural research. The team aims to develop improved cultivars of leafy vegetables suitable for indoor farming through molecular breeding techniques, such as genome-wide association studies and genomic selection.

A glimpse into DBS

The Department of Biological Sciences (DBS) evolved from the merger of two of the oldest departments in the Faculty of Science: the Department of Botany, founded in 1949 and the Department of Zoology, founded in 1950. It is committed to provide the best education and research opportunities to students and to equip them with critical thinking, analytical and communication skills to be future-ready for the new economy. DBS also anchors a vibrant, diverse, and dynamic research community that took the lead in addressing key life science questions in the areas of Human Health, Climate Change and Food Security.

“We are very honoured and enthusiastic to join NUS Agritech Centre. Together, we hope that by developing new varieties of leafy vegetables for indoor farming, we can help Singapore to achieve its ’30 by 30’ goal.”
— Tang Wan Zu, Research Assistant of NUS DBS

Meet the Team

From left to right: Song Shuang (Research Fellow of NUS DBS), Lim Yi Lin (Research Assistant of NUS DBS), Tang Wan Zu (Research Assistant of NUS DBS), Professor Tan Eng Chye (President of NUS), Professor Freddy Boey (Deputy President (Innovation & Enterprise) of NUS), and Mr Brian Koh (Director of NUS Enterprise)

Innovation through Science

In support of Singapore’s initiatives to increase food production to meet its ’30 by 30’ goal, DBS plans to leverage on their knowledge of genetics to develop vegetable cultivars with improved agronomic traits desirable for indoor farming. Additionally, DBS intends to develop research capabilities for breeding of other crops for sustainable development. Their project will first focus on genome-wide association studies of leafy vegetable cultivars worldwide to identify suitable genetic markers for desirable agronomic traits under indoor farming conditions. By using cross breeding and in silico breeding, DBS aims to develop improved leafy vegetable cultivars with commercial values for indoor farming.

Sustainable and Palatable

Through a reverse engineering method of matching these traits to their genetic components, it is possible to identify specific genetic combinations to predict the type of traits the new crop accession would have. This means that we might have more yummy vegetables in the future!

With this information, crop cultivars with specific traits or combinations of useful traits can be developed. These findings will allow further research into advanced breeding strategies to develop leafy vegetables cultivars with desired traits such as higher growth rate, better tolerance of indoor farming conditions including low light level and high humidity. DBS is also looking into the unique architecture of the plant as well as their underlying metabolites that may influence the taste and texture when used as food products. So if you dislike having vegetables, perhaps these unique tasting crops might change your mind!

For indoor farmers, these crops maximise their productivity and resource use efficiency, which may in turn improve the food security and facilitate the sustainable growth of the urban farming industry in Singapore. This would add value to the product not just in terms of productivity but also in the unique taste, texture and utility of the cultivars.

Milestones and Goals

From this project, DBS has acquired approximately 300 accessions of major leafy vegetable species across the world and have been evaluating their phenotype and genotype in fine detail. They have also discovered several potential genetic markers corresponding to certain phenotypic traits of these leafy vegetable species of interest and would like to further validate them before designing the appropriate combinations to generate potentially new cultivars with the traits of interest.

Other than developing vegetable cultivars with improved yield, DBS is planning to investigate the proteomics and metabolomics aspects of vegetables to develop cultivars with improved flavours and nutritional values. They would also work with industrial partners to test the cultivars developed and further improve their performance.

“We are very excited to embark on our research journey with NUS Agritech Centre. Working side by side with other start-up companies with similar goals, we hope to learn and gain insights from each other to generate greater ideas for indoor farming in Singapore.”
— Lim Yi Lin, Research Assistant of NUS DBS

Ultimately, DBS’s goal is to develop Singapore’s local seed development capability for urban agriculture and reduce our reliance on overseas seed supply through their agricultural research.

For more information on NUS DBS, log on to https://www.dbs.nus.edu.sg/

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