UC Berkeley researchers lead $12.3 million drought study

Jeff Dahlberg/Courtesy

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UC Berkeley announced Monday that it will be spearheading a $12.3 million project beginning in summer 2016 that intends to examine how a particular cereal crop, sorghum, reacts to drought.

The project, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, aims to use epigenetics to determine what genetic advantages sorghum may possess over other crops in drought conditions. This study takes place amid ongoing drought conditions both in California and around the world.

Chia-Lin Wei, a researcher at the Department of Energy Joint Genome Institute, explained epigenetics as changes in gene regulation triggered by external or environmental factors — such as a drought — that are not present in DNA and are therefore difficult to detect.

“Sorghum is naturally drought tolerant and we want to understand how that works,” said Devin Coleman-Derr, a co-investigator in the project and campus assistant adjunct professor. “I think there will be useful insights that we could apply to other cereal crops.”

This study intends to analyze multiple characteristics of sorghum samples as part of the project, including epigenetics, DNA and transcriptional profiling. Once the study begins, Wei said, a “data team” will disseminate the results on an online platform open to other researchers.

As part of the study, one nursery will be watered under drought-free conditions while other nurseries will be dedicated to testing sorghum plants under drought stress before and after they flower.

Jeff Dahlberg, director of KARE under the UC Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources, is in charge of the nurseries that will be the subject of the study, located at the Kearney Agricultural Research and Extension Center in central California.

“The biggest impact the drought has is that it puts plants under heavy stress,” Dahlberg said. “Plants will respond to drought in many ways: they won’t produce as much, they will be stressed and more vulnerable to plant diseases and insects.”

The researchers aim to locate specific genetic markers in the crop that could have far-reaching implications. By studying drought tolerance in sorghum, the scientists may also make discoveries that shed insight on other plants in the cereal family, such as global food sources corn and rice, which are currently threatened by drought.

Scientists hope that by researching sorghum drought tolerance, they can better understand how to keep sorghum plants large and healthy, improving their potential as efficient food and biofuel resources.

“Once we understand (sorghum’s durability), we will have more insight into how plants are drought tolerant,” said Christer Jansson, Director of Plant Sciences at the Environmental Molecular Sciences Laboratory and a co-investigator in the project. “We can use that knowledge to understand what genes are involved and use that in breeding (cereal crops).”

Contact Anderson Lanham at [email protected].