Drought-tolerant plants could supply fuel in the wake of climate change

Why do some plants tolerate drought better than others? The answer could help ensure adequate supplies of food and fuel as climate change pushes weather to extremes.

In the School of Biological Sciences, plant biologist Asaph Cousins probes the complex relationship between plants and climate. By monitoring plants’ responses to drought, he amasses enough data to predict how plants will withstand future shifts in climatic conditions. This allows him to identify traits and pathways for improving plant productivity and drought resistance, particularly in bioenergy grasses.

Dr. Cousins is part of a nationwide team working to discover the mechanisms that underlie drought responses. Supported by a 5-year, $12 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, he and his colleagues at Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis; Carnegie Institution for Science; the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign; and the University of Minnesota are assembling a full genetic and physiological profile of Setaria viridis, a grass closely related to corn and bioenergy feedstocks.

When the analysis is complete, researchers will be able to match physiological features like drought resistance and productivity with their respective genetic controls. Ultimately, it will give researchers a blueprint for breeding new biofuel species—plants that produce high yields in the driest of times.