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Sept. 22, 2011 Volume 33, No. 5

Drought simulators mimic field conditions for plant researchers

Drought simulators

FIELD CONDITIONING MU plant researchers Robert Sharp and Felix Fritschi are leading a multi-disciplinary effort to use drought simulators to test the effects of water-deficit stress on soybean and corn varieties. Photo courtesy of CAFNR


Recreating the environment to improve plant research

Some part of the United States experiences a severe drought every year, devastating agriculture, increasing the cost of food and causing famine.

Researchers at MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR) recently completed two drought simulators to study how reduced water availability affects plants and crop productivity, and how new breeds of drought-tolerant plants can boost yields.

The simulators, located at the Bradford Research and Extension Center east of Columbia, vary the amount of water that test plants receive, mimicking everything from short dry spells to persistent and severe drought conditions. Essentially two 50-by-100-foot greenhouses on railroad tracks, they move away from test plants when the weather is sunny and cover the plots when rain approaches. By varying the position of the greenhouse, researchers can precisely allow a specified amount of rainfall to fall on the plants. Test plots of the same plants just outside the drought simulators provide a scientific control.

The simulators are critical in drought research. Plant responses are complex and currently difficult to study, said Robert (Bob) Sharp, a co-investigator and professor of plant sciences, and new director of MU’s Interdisciplinary Plant Group.

“The ability to manage the timing, duration and intensity of water-deficit stress under field conditions is essential to examine plant responses to drought,” said Bob Sharp, a co-investigator and director of MU’s Interdisciplinary Plant Group. “Thus, the drought simulators will bridge the gap between controlled-environment facilities, such as growth chambers and greenhouses, and real conditions encountered in the field.”

The simulators are part of a $1.5 million Missouri Life Sciences Research Board grant. When additional funding is available, simulators will be built at the Delta Research Center in Portageville, Mo., in the southeastern part of the state, and at the Horticulture and Agroforestry Research Center in New Franklin, Mo. These locations represent a variety of environments, crop species and soil types, allowing researchers to test any agriculturally important crop, forage and turf species grown in Missouri and surrounding states.

“This network of drought simulators will be unlike any other network in the U.S., providing Missouri scientists with state-of-the-art field facilities to conduct a broad range of drought-related research,” said Felix Fritschi, assistant professor in the CAFNR Division of Plant Sciences. “Our objective is to develop real-world products and practices to improve food security and increase profitability for farmers.”

Thirteen co-investigators from several disciplines, including water quality, soil biology, soil physics, plant-insect and plant-disease interaction, and plant breeding, genetics and plant root biology will collaborate on the project. Researchers also plan to study the genetic characteristics of plants that are extremely tolerant to dry climates and how these characteristics might be used to improve commercial crops.