Growing up in a small village in the state of Haryana, India, helping to tend his family’s farm, Om Parkash Dhankher saw first-hand the challenges in producing a safe and stable food supply to feed the world’s expanding population.

“I saw the problems that farmers are facing—lack of water, increasing salinity, degradation of soil,” he said. Moreover, parts of India and neighboring Bangladesh are among the world's worst affected by arsenic and other toxic metal contamination in soil and groundwater.

Dhankher completed his undergraduate and master's studies in India before attending Durham University in England for his PhD, where he focused on developing crops resilient to climate change. For his postdoctoral fellowship, he joined a lab at the University of Georgia that was engineering plants that could detoxify and clean up mercury pollution in soil. He contributed to this research and also developed his own project on arsenic phytoremediation. Dhankher brought this line of research with him to UMass Amherst when he joined the College of Natural Science’s Stockbridge School of Agriculture (then known as the Plant, Soil, and Insect Sciences Department) in 2004.

For nearly 20 years, Dhankher has led groundbreaking multidisciplinary research on plants in his UMass lab, studying fundamental questions in biology and translating his research to address dire food security and food safety challenges facing the world. He has been awarded more than $10 million as PI and co-PI for his research at UMass. Dhankher is the author of five books and more than 115 publications in high-profile journals, such as Nature Biotech, PNAS, The Plant Cell, Plant Biotechnology, and Environmental Science & Technology, and has been awarded five international patents based on his research findings. A leader in his field, Dhankher was elected as vice president of the International Phytotechnology Society, beginning in 2015; was named an Agronomy Society of America (ASA) Fellow in 2021; and in 2022 was named a CSSA Fellow, the highest recognition bestowed by Crop Science Society of America (CSSA).

Dhankher’s laboratory conducts research in several impactful areas. He is a pioneer in engineering fast-growing, non-food crops that can remediate contamination of toxic metals—including arsenic—in soil. His laboratory is also developing genetically enhanced arsenic-free crop strains for food safety.

“Rice and many other food crops are well-known to accumulate high levels of arsenic, a carcinogen and a significant concern in the food supply, including in baby food,” he said. “We're developing arsenic-free rice as well as a plants-based ‘green-clean technology’ to remediate this soil contamination problem and improve the safety of food.” This research is currently funded by the United States Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA NIFA) and an R01 award by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).  

In 2021, Dhankher and his collaborator, Jason C. White (director of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and an adjunct professor in UMass’s Stockbridge School of Agriculture), were awarded funding from USDA NIFA to conduct a brainstorming workshop among experts on toxic metals in food systems. Held virtually in April 2022, the workshop yielded a report that identifies critical knowledge gaps and recommends a center-like, multidisciplinary approach to address needs in research, education, and extension. Dhankher expects the report to guide the USDA in future action to mitigate toxic contamination of the food supply.

Dhankher’s lab is also developing climate-resilient crops that can be grown with less water, or can tolerate irrigation with recycled wastewater or salt water.  

“In the future, water will be the number one limited resource on the planet,” he said. “Currently, 70 percent of freshwater is consumed globally by agriculture. We need to think more sustainably and use all kinds of recycled water for growing crops.”

Dhankher also has received funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and Advance Research Product Agency for Energy (ARPA-e) for research on metabolic engineering of oil seed crops to produce biofuels, which have a lower carbon footprint and less environmental impact.  

“Our main goal is to increase the oil and seed yields for these specialized crops to generate more biofuel using less land,” Dhankher explained.  

He is also exploring other pathways and genes that could allow the oil to be used for lubricants and other industrial products.

Most recently, Dhankher’s lab has made significant progress in developing sustainable, non-toxic nanomaterials for use in fertilizers and pesticides.  

“Today, farmers are heavily reliant on chemical fertilizers and pesticides,” he explained. “This puts so much toxic pollution into the environment, which is getting into the food supply and causing cancer and other health problems in the population. It breaks my heart that we’re dealing with this in the 21st century.”

In his lab, Dhankher has trained numerous undergraduate and graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and visiting professors and scholars. His lab is among the most diverse on campus, with contributors hailing from all over the world.

“Education has no boundaries. It is key to solving many of the world’s problems,” Dhankher said. “Apart from USA, students in my lab come from places like India, Egypt, Kenya, Pakistan, China, and Argentina, then return to their countries and train future generations of scientists.”

Indeed, as the world’s population continues to grow and food safety and security are threatened by climate change, land degradation, and contamination of natural resources, Dhankher’s research is ever more vital.  

“I do hope that in my lifetime, some of the technologies developed in my laboratory will be widely used for the benefit of society,” he said.

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