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Valley Researchers To Study How Plants In Drought Change Their Genetics

Peggy Lemaux, Biologist UC Berkeley
A bee visits a Sorghum plant

Two research sites in Central Valley have earned a $12.3-million dollar grant to study how the drought is triggering genetic changes in plants. The goal is to see how plants respond genetically to drought conditions and if more hardy plants can reveal the secrets of how they survive.

The scientists will work at the UC Kearney Agriculture Research and Extension Center in Parlier and the UC West Side Research and Extension Center in Five Points. The focus of the research is on Sorghum which, according to researcher Jeff Dahlberg, is particularly drought resistant.

“It one of the most drought tolerant cereal crops that we grow in the world. And there has been a lot of interest in looking at Sorghum and figuring out what that tolerance is,” Dahlberg said.

The sorghum is apparently able to sense when it is facing drought conditions and flip a genetic switch to use less water. In some cases, the plants close their cells to release less water or create more wax to protect their leaves and stems.

“What are the genes that are responsible for those? When are they turned on? When are they turned off? So it is a rather ambitious research project,” Dalhberg said.

In addition to figuring out how the plant is capable of changing its genetics, Dahlberg says they want to know how the plant is able to divine the conditions.

One early thought is drought triggers microbial changes in the soil that Sorghum can detect.

“There is a lot of stuff going on below ground that we don’t really understand. So there is some real new thinking coming about these communities in the soil and how they may interact with the plant and help them respond to certain stresses,” Dahlberg said.

The researchers will grow two different sets of crops. One under drought conditions and another under normal watering conditions. They will then compare and study the differences in the plants.

Dahlberg says their research might focus on sorghum but their goal is much larger. By learning how sorghum is able to adjust to differing environments, the scientist might be able to apply that information to other crops to improve their drought tolerance.

“A lot of these genes for drought tolerance are fairly common in a lot of plants, especially in the cereal crop,” Dahlberg said, “We can actually sequence those genes and put those sequences out for the general scientific community to use. And they can use those sequences to explore the genomes that they are interested in.”

There is also the possibility that sorghum could grow in importance as a cash crop. It grows quickly and produces lots of plant material that can be used for animal or human food or even as bio-fuel or renewable plastics.

The research will take place over the next three years.

The Energy Department's Genomic Science Program is funding this project through its Office of Biological and Environmental Research.

Jeffrey Hess is a reporter and Morning Edition news host for Valley Public Radio. Jeffrey was born and raised in a small town in rural southeast Ohio. After graduating from Otterbein University in Columbus, Ohio with a communications degree, Jeffrey embarked on a radio career. After brief stops at stations in Ohio and Texas, and not so brief stops in Florida and Mississippi, Jeffrey and his new wife Shivon are happy to be part Valley Public Radio.