Farming in a Hot, Dry World

Penn State Eberly College of Science Professor Charles Anderson and his research team are looking to help farmers and crop breeders grow hardier plants to boost world food supplies.

Dr. Charles Anderson, assistant professor of biology in Penn State's Eberly College of Science, hasn't always been so interested in plants. In fact, his Ph.D. from Stanford University was focused on animal cell biology. He later began applying his expertise to plants because of an interest in bioenergy and biofuels.

Today, he says, "I'm passionate about trying to address the challenge of climate change by leveraging our biological knowledge of plants."

An undergraduate researcher measures the height of a Brachypodium plant.

"Fast Farming" Data Measurement

Undergraduate researcher Liam Farrell, a Horticulture major, measures a Brachypodium plant in the "Fast Farming" grow room. The species' small size means that more than 10,000 plants can be cultivated in the grow room, which is not much larger than a walk-in closet.

Image: Michelle Bixby

And this challenge looms large as climate change creates increasingly hot, dry, and unpredictable weather conditions around the world. In fact, says Anderson, weather variability—including higher instances of extreme drought—is already affecting crop production around the globe. 

"Figuring out how to deal with extreme weather variability is one of the challenges that farmers face," says Anderson, who joined the University's Department of Biology in January 2012. "As our planet warms, it's not just going to evenly and slowly warm; it's going to become more unstable."

"I'm passionate about trying to address the challenge of climate change by leveraging our biological knowledge of plants."—Charles Anderson

His current research project, dubbed "Fast Farming: Feeding a Hot, Dry World," involves studying gene variants in a small, fast-growing grass species to identify genes that make it most resistant to stressors like drought and extreme heat. 

The grass, Brachypodium distachyon, is closely related to crop plants like wheat and barley. So, much like mice are used as experimental models for humans, Anderson and his researchers are using Brachypodium as a model for crop plants. 

Brachypodium plants that have received water are lush and green, while those grown under drought conditions have not flourished.

Close-up of Brachypodium Plant

This comparison of Brachypodium plants shows two sets of plants with the same gene variations. Researchers stopped watering the tray on the left to compare it to its counterpart on the right, which was watered throughout. "We want to serve as a resource of information to farmers and crop breeders so they can make informed decisions about what kinds of crops to grow," says project lead Charles Anderson.

Image: Michelle Bixby

"We're basically growing several thousand plants at the same time and seeing which ones respond best to drought," says Anderson. 

Additional advantages of Brachypodium's use as a model species is its size and short lifecycle. Anderson's research team—which includes two undergraduate students—grows about 10,000 plants at a time in a room not much larger than a walk-in closet. They can gather a full set of data in about two months. This means that the researchers can gather and analyze data quickly—a growing necessity in a world of rapid environmental change. 

"That's one of the things I love about Penn State. We excel not only at the basic fundamental sciences but also the agriculturally related sciences."—Charles Anderson

The undergraduate researchers assigned to the project, Jaime Jarrin and Liam Farrell, have hands-on involvement throughout the process, from sowing seeds to maintaining the plants and collecting data. The students say they're learning much about the right way to conduct experiments and gaining a deeper understanding of the research process. 

"Working hands-on with a research project gives you a better appreciation for everything that goes into the process, the scientific method, and ways to improve research and data collection," says Jarrin, an Immunology and Infectious Disease major. 

And though at times the research process can be tedious, it comes with great rewards.

"Working hands-on with a research project gives you a better appreciation for everything that goes into the process, the scientific method, and ways to improve research and data collection."—Jaime Jarrin

"It's really satisfying when the research comes to an end and you have your top five plants that are most resistant to drought," says Farrell, pursuing a major in Horticulture. "You know that, further down the line, you're going to look at those plants more closely and possibly find that one of them has what we're looking for—a gene that conveys drought tolerance." 

The team will plant another set of seeds soon and start the process all over. But this time, they'll also be working to analyze the data collected from last semester's growth cycle. 

"We'll be working with Melissa [Ishler, research technician] this semester on looking at all the data," says Jarrin. "She'll be helping us figure out what it is and what we can do with it."

"Fast Farming" Biology professor and undergraduate research student examine Brachypodium plants in grow room.

"Fast Farming" Plant Growth

Undergrad Liam Farrell (right) and project lead Charles Anderson examine the differences between Brachypodium plants growing under varying conditions. "The undergraduates ask really insightful questions," Anderson says. "They push me to think more deeply about the project, how it's working, and how well we're achieving our goals."

Image: Michelle Bixby

According to Anderson, the undergraduate researchers on his team bring extra energy and excitement to the project and, because of their backgrounds in the College of Agricultural Sciences, they also bring a different perspective. 

"That's one of the things I love about Penn State," he says. "We excel not only at the basic fundamental sciences but also the agriculturally related sciences."

"If we're improving [farmers'] ability to grow crops, we're also improving their economic outlook. That's one of our main motivations."—Charles Anderson

As Anderson's team begins to make conclusions about which genes will help crop plants endure the extreme and variable conditions that become more and more likely in an environment of climate change, they'll be able to help farmers and crop breeders make more informed planting decisions. In this way, he says, they're helping to fulfill Penn State's historic mission as a land-grant institution.

"We've really become a global extension resource for our partners to improve their yield and, thereby, their economic situation," he says. "If we're improving their ability to grow crops, we're also improving their economic outlook. That's one of our main motivations."

"Fast Farming" research technician and undergraduate student examine Brachypodium plants in grow room.

Recording "Fast Farming" Data

Undergraduate Liam Farrell (left) and research technician Melissa Ishler record data about the Brachypodium plants as they develop. The project's two undergraduate students are heavily involved in data collection, measuring height and classifying the developmental stage of each plant. 

Image: Michelle Bixby

 

About Dr. Charles Anderson

Dr. Charles Anderson, assistant professor of biology in Penn State’s Eberly College of Science, holds a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology from Stanford University and a B.S. in biology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He joined the Penn State faculty in 2012 after several years of postdoctoral research in the Energy Biosciences Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. Anderson’s research lab seeks to apply a better understanding of plant cell wall dynamics to the production of food, renewable materials, and bioenergy.