Research to help farmers address environmental challenges of climate change

Charles Anderson (left), assistant professor of biology, and undergraduate researcher Liam Farrell examine the growth and development of Brachypodium plants. By studying these plants, Anderson and his team hope to determine what gene variants might help crop plants like wheat and barley better withstand weather conditions like extreme drought. Credit: Michelle Bixby / Penn StateCreative Commons

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

And this challenge looms large as climate change creates increasingly hot, dry and unpredictable weather conditions around the world. In fact, said 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," said 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."

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. 

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

To help farmers address the challenges of climate change, Penn State researchers and students have planted more than 10,000 plants in a process dubbed "fast-farming." Their goal is to determine which ones are tolerant to extreme heat and drought in order to make recommendations to farmers in affected areas around the globe. This research has been featured by the Big Ten in a new, one-minute video as part of its LiveB1G initiative. 

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. 

The undergraduate researchers assigned to the project, Jaime Jarrin and Liam Farrell, who started as a student at Penn State York, 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," said Jarrin, an immunology and infectious disease major. 

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

"It's really satisfying when the research comes to an end and you have your top five plants that are most resistant to drought," said 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," said Jarrin. "She'll be helping us figure out what it is and what we can do with it." 

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 said. "We excel not only at the basic fundamental sciences but also the agriculturally-related sciences." 

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 said. "If we're improving their ability to grow crops, we're also improving their economic outlook. That's one of our main motivations." 

Last Updated January 29, 2015