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.