6 ways agronomists are tackling climate change

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Modern agriculture must produce more food than ever before to feed our growing planet, necessitating the use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to keep up with demand. These widespread practices cost farmers dearly while contributing to climate change by emitting greenhouse gases.

Moreover, farmers are particularly vulnerable to the effects of our changing climate. Droughts, floods and longer fire seasons are posing increasingly serious challenges to farmers and pastoralists around the world. Science and technology to address challenges at the intersection of agriculture and the environment have never been more important.

At the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, researchers and their collaborators are working on major new initiatives to mitigate climate change through carbon sequestration and reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, and adaptation of cultures to adapt or live with the climate change that has already been set in motion.

Climate Change Mitigation

New Root Integration Institute for Restoration Biology (NRR-BII). This $12.5 million multi-institutional initiative led by Allison Miller, PhD, seeks to understand plant characteristics, plant communities and the soil ecosphere to restore natural and agricultural ecosystems. A key driver of NRR-BII is the development of efficient and scalable ways to better capture carbon dioxide, the most abundant greenhouse gas, and sequester it in the ground. Consider that a tall grass prairie can sequester 0.3 to 1.7 metric tons of carbon from the atmosphere each year. This work will help researchers apply what we can learn from natural systems to move towards climate resilience.

Spaced nursery of wild perennials, herbaceous species and candidate species of perennial crops that will be used under the NRR-BII. The people in these photos are members of the Miller Lab.

Plant Exploitation Initiative (HPI). Led by plant biologists from the Salk Institute, this initiative now includes a $6.2 million program led by Nadia Shakoor, PhD, at the Danforth Center to develop sorghum with more carbon sequestration potential. Sorghum is very attractive for capturing and storing atmospheric carbon underground because it is also relatively drought tolerant. Nadia’s team studies the genetics and phenotypes of sorghum needed for improved varieties that can sequester more carbon.

Subterranean influences on the nitrogen cycle (SINC) The SINC centercurrently led by Rebecca Bart, PhD, Ivan Baxter, PhD, Doug Allen, Ph.D., Christopher Topp, PhD and the Data science team, use microbes and plant genetics to reduce the need for synthetic nitrogen fertilizers. A key driver is the need to reduce emissions of nitrous oxide, which has nearly 300 times more heat-trapping potential than an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide.1 Seventy-five percent of emissions Nitrous oxide emissions are due to nitrogen fertilizers and other agricultural practices. The SINC center seeks to develop a technology that reduces the need for synthetic fertilizer by 12% without loss of crop productivity. Reducing chemical nitrogen fertilizers in the United States by 12% would be equivalent to taking 10 million cars off the road.

Danforth Center scientists at our field research site, examining the roots of maize plants in a SINC Center plot.

Adaptation to climate change

Understanding plant responses to environmental challenges. This fund financed by the NSF, $3 million “Rules of Life” project involves teams led by Keith Slotkin, Ph.D., Malia Gehan, PhD, Blake Meyers, Ph.D., Sona Pandey, PhD, Chris Topp, PhD et al., and seeks to understand how plants will respond to environmental challenges when carbon dioxide levels are higher. The project will build models of how high carbon dioxide and stress affect the growth of various plant species, and how these changes can be inherited (epigenetically) into subsequent generations. As the team points out, “Understanding plant responses to environmental stress is important for securing our future… interest in maintaining agricultural productivity and preserving the environment.

Mechanisms underlying resilience to abiotic stress in sorghum. Andrea Eveland (main PI) and Todd Mockler teams and employees are explore the genetic basis of drought tolerance in sorghum in this $2.7 million project funded by the Department of Energy. These are phenotyping experiments in the Arizona desert to measure the effects of drought on genetically distinct sorghum varieties. In many agricultural regions of the world, future climates will be both hotter and drier, with more frequent extremes such as prolonged drought. This work will enable plant breeders to offer varieties that better tolerate these conditions.

Field of sorghum plants

Center-wide climate adaptation research. This is a constant theme around the Centre. At Ru Zhang’s The team is working hard to understand how photosynthesis is affected by high temperatures. Ivan Baxter’s group seeks to understand how plant genome composition affects growth and nutritional status in different environments. Sona Pandey and by Dmitri Nusinow groups aim to discern how plants biochemically sense and respond to environmental change and stress, while Malia Gehan’sand by Noah Fahlgren teams are coming up with more effective and useful ways to measure the effects of stress. And Toby Kellogg’s The group analyzes natural variation in wild species for traits relevant to climate adaptation.

Agriculture must offer meaningful solutions to climate change through both mitigation and adaptation, but both will require major investments in scientific research and technological development.

Remarks:

  1. EPA “Greenhouse Gas Overview”, https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/overview-greenhouse-gases#nitrous-oxide

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