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April 2, 2020

Federica Brandizzi named 2020 MSU Innovator of the Year

As the world’s population increases and the demand for food continues to rise, the need to improve crop yields only grows, not only for the current consuming population but also for the nearly one billion people whose food supply and resources are currently insecure. Estimates for crop yields to feed the 2050 population call for 50 to 100 percent production increases and at least an additional 500 million-hectares of land to meet future agricultural needs.

Federica Brandizzi, MSU Foundation Professor of plant biology and a member of the MSU-DOE Plant Research Lab, or PRL, is the recipient of the MSU Innovation Center’s 2020 Innovator of the Year Award in recognition of her research on increasing plant size to maximize the space needed for more crops. Specifically, she is investigating the technology needed to help plant cells soften their cell walls to allow them to expand and grow bigger in the field.

“We see plants as unlimited resources, but we don’t realize that ultimately plants may become limited because the population is growing, but the agricultural land is not,” said Brandizzi, whose academic home is in the Department of Plant Biology. “By creating plants that grow bigger and taller in the field, you save water, space and nutrients.”

From creating a seed that grows into more nutritious, better digestible alfalfa for animals to engineering sorghum and soybeans to grow bigger, Brandizzi’s work translates into crops making better use of available land.

“I was delighted to hear that Federica Brandizzi received MSU's 2020 Innovator of the Year Award,” said Christoph Benning, University Distinguished Professor, MSU Foundation Professor and PRL director. “Federica is highly entrepreneurial, constantly exploring new fundamental research directions and ingenious ways to apply basic findings made in her lab to solve important problems related to the sustainable production of foods and fuels. This award is well-deserved, and I would like to congratulate her on behalf of everyone at the PRL.”

In addition to her work on plant cells walls, Brandizzi has conducted research into biofuels; plant growth in closed-loop life support conditions, such as on spacecraft or extraterrestrial environments; the mechanisms for generation and maintenance of chloroplast interactions with other organelles; and how the identity of organelles is established and maintained in eukaryotic cell biology.

Brandizzi has more than 150 publications, with her work cited more than 8,200 times, a patent and additional patents pending, and several inventions in process.

Charles Hasemann, MSU Innovation Center assistant vice president for innovation and economic development, explained that the center’s celebration recognizes the work that MSU faculty and students have done to bring their innovation to the marketplace, either as a startup company or as a licensable technology.

“We had identified the technology and established it, but working with MSU Technologies and the MSU Innovation Center allowed us to understand the value of this discovery for crops [and] the potential of our technology,” Brandizzi added. “The MSU Innovation Center has put us in touch with companies interested in our technology.”

Brandizzi’s interest in science developed at a young age. Her parents instilled in her a desire to ask questions and to be curious about the world around her. While gardening was never her passion, she did enjoy growing beans and measuring their leaf and stem sizes.

“I grew up on a farm in Italy and was always fascinated by the ability of organisms to thrive, sometimes in very unfavorable conditions,” she said. I thought if we could understand the basic principles, we could use knowledge to improve the organisms.

“I’m passionate about what I do,” Brandizzi added, “because it gives me the ability to interact with people who have energy and enthusiasm—and we share the same passion to improve the world in the future and the environment that surrounds [us].”

By: Val Osowski