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18/12/2017 – News / Agriculture / Urban Farming / Research / Singapore / DiSTAP

New Singapore research group aims to help make high-density urban farming a reality

Commencing in January 2018 for an initial five-year period, a new Singapore-based research programme aims to develop solutions that could help overcome the pressing challenges associated with ramping up urban food and nutrient production.


The cultivation of plants gave rise to the first human settlements thousands of years ago – “our original cities were literally rooted in agriculture,” notes Caleb Harper, principal investigator and director of the Open Agriculture (OpenAG) initiative in the MIT Media Lab. “Since then, city life has parted ways with it entirely, as urbanites have become almost completely disconnected from their food sources.”


Now, the SMART Disruptive & Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) research group – formed by SMART, in partnerships with Singapore universities and research institutions including Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – will seek to develop the technologies that could help reverse that shift and reintegrate farming into the city. The group plans to develop nanosensor-based detection technologies to be applied in precision agriculture for the discovery, optimisation and translation of plant biosynthetic pathways for improved yields in production.


DiSTAP will be co-led by Professor Michael Strano from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Professor Chua Nam Hai from Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL). The research team will also include Principal Investigators from NUS and NTU.


Researchers will also collaborate with Greenphyto – a local developer of an automated vertical farming system – to ensure that Singapore’s small and medium companies are able to benefit from new technologies developed under the programme.


“Powerful nanosensor technology”


“The Disruptive and Sustainable Technologies for Agricultural Precision (DiSTAP) will utilise new techniques developed at MIT to help world-class Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL) produce the next generation of agricultural products,” said Professor Strano. “Using powerful nanosensor technology, we will tap and measure biochemical signalling pathways within the plant not possible until now. The TLL is well-positioned to capitalise on these advances. DiSTAP will engineer new plants to solve longstanding problems in agriculture and also translate those advances to state-of-the-art biomanufacturing technologies. The goal is to make the TLL and Singapore the technological hub for a new generation of agricultural research methods.”


Professor Chua Nam Hai, Deputy Chairman, TLL, added: “Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory (TLL) focuses on the development of innovative solutions to address real-world needs with the ultimate aim of improving lives and benefiting the society. By leveraging TLL’s plant biology expertise, we hope to contribute to the production of higher yielding plants and new systems that enable high-density urban farming.”


The UN estimates that by 2050 some 6.5 billion people will be living in cities – nearly double what it is today. Given such statistics, the need to return to our roots – to reintegrate farming into the city once more – will be more crucial that ever in the years ahead, to help close the circle on food security and sustainability alike.

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