Dr. Kevin Folta’s journey into plants began differently than most. While he grew up with a passion for science, agriculture was not his first love. Instead, he started his academic career in the field of DNA and genetics at Northern Illinois University.
“I was always interested in the molecular, biochemical end and not so much in bigger issues like agriculture,” he says.
But during his undergraduate studies at NIU, where he earned a degree in biology, internships dealing with both agriculture and horticulture pushed him toward those fields as a career. As a graduate student at Northern Illinois, he earned a master’s degree in biology, but focused more on plants than he did previously, and began to better understand how plants interact with their environments.
Then, while pursuing a Ph.D in molecular biology at University of Illinois at Chicago, he wrote his thesis, titled, “Blue light regulation of the pea Lhcb1*4 gene in transgenic Arabidopsis thalian.” (Editor’s note: You can read the thesis here) Co-authored with Dr. Lon S. Kaufman, now the provost at Hunter College in New York City, this served as his first public foray into exploring a possible communicative relationship between light and plants.
In 2002, Folta moved to the University of Florida, where he now serves as a professor and chairman of the horticultural sciences department. There, he also leads a research team that examines the same topic that he penned his thesis on: How can growers “talk” to plants with light?
“It wasn’t until I got hired at the University of Florida that I really understood how we could translate it to individual photons and answer questions in biology and farming,” Folta says. “That’s where it all came together.”
The idea behind the research
The through line of Folta’s work centers on a simple idea: If growers are looking for a specific output, they should use a specific input. He says that if growers use LED lights, and then utilize the parts of the spectrum that best fit their plants, they can grow with a specificity that isn’t possible with other types of lights.
“We know how a photon of red triggers specific responses or how a photon of blue triggers specific responses,” he says.
Folta adds that he believes every plant needs a specific light treatment. What that treatment is depends on if a grower is looking for increased yield, overall health or another desired output. The treatment also depends on what the plant is; basil needs different inputs than tomatoes, which in turn needs different inputs than poinsettias and so on.
“Sticking a plant under generic light is just as bad as pouring generic fertilizer on it,” he says.
Right now, research indicates that blue, red and far red light all have a positive impact on plant growth. Folta says he’s also studying green light’s effect on plants. Of all the aforementioned colors, he says far red is the one currently being underutilized.
“Plants understand far red, and it’s an important part of information input,” he says. “And yet it’s not included in most designed lights.”
Folta adds that there are developments outside of lighting that need to happen to maximize results. He says that, over time, seeds for controlled environments must also be bred. Currently, seeds have been bred for field growing operations and, as a result, many growers are not using seeds that are well-suited for their indoor system.
“If you’re growing something in a hydroponic, LED [greenhouse], it’s remarkably different than what the plant was designed for — to be productive in the field,” Folta says. “Plants make their decisions based on environment, so there’s no reason to think a plant designed for the field would reach its maximum growth inside a controlled environment.”
A focus on vegetables
A large portion of Folta’s research is focused on fruits and vegetables. Two of his main areas of focus are the functional genomics of small fruit crops and the genetic basis of flavors. Additionally, one of the two courses he teaches is titled, “Fruit for Fun and Profit,” an entry-level course that exposes students to the most profitable and common crops in Florida.Folta says the reasons he focuses on fruit are two-fold.
“No. 1, they are nutrient dense, so they are important for human nutrition,” he says. “The second part is that they are [not only] the thing that adds color and texture to the human diet, but they are also of high value to farmers. You’ve got something people need, something people want and something that makes money for the people who grow it and supply it.”
This love of produce fits into his flavor research and the idea that growers can tailor their production to obtain a specific output. Folta’s research indicates that with specific LED lighting colors, growers can directly tell a plant how they want it to grow. So, in theory, a hydroponic lettuce grower could use a specific light color on the spectrum if they wanted to give their lettuce a sweeter taste than lettuce growing under a different light color or a different type of lighting altogether. In time, with more research, this same precision could be applied to ornamental crops as well.
Making an impact
As he sees it, Folta’s role in the industry is to inform growers about the latest developments. In addition to research, part of Folta’s job is outreach. That includes hosting a podcast called “Talking Biotech” (talkingbiotechpodcast.com) while also doing the work necessary to push the industry forward.
“I have a good finger on the pulse of everything that’s developing and all of the research that’s being done, whether that’s in genetics or production,” Folta says. “I have a good role there as a hub on the wheel. But in research, I have a role in finding out what’s the next cutting-edge development. Growers can’t roll the dice. They can’t lose the space [to trial new technologies]. I can do that and use government money to maybe find something that can benefit our growers.”
In short: Folta aims to not only improve the industry for growers, but engage more people with it. With that in mind, he recommends growers take the time to find the genetics and lights that bring the best out in each other. His hope is that he can show the industry the benefits of communicating with plants on a molecular level.
“It takes a little more upfront work, but I think that’s what we do well and I think that’s something growers should really focus on,” he says.
Folta does not take the responsibility attached to his job lightly, either. He travels to speak about his research at conferences and to meet with growers to see what growers with a personal financial stake are going through. Sometimes that means working seven days a week.
“I go constantly,” he says. “[But] I wouldn’t have it any other way.”