Missouri Transect Receives $20 Million Grant to Study Plant Productivity

John C. Walker, Curators' Professor of Biological Sciences and director of the Division of Biological Sciences, will serve as primary investigator for the project.

John C. Walker, Curators' Professor of Biological Sciences and director of the Division of Biological Sciences, will serve as primary investigator for the project.

The climate team will use Doppler radar to enhance prediction of climate variability and extreme events.

The climate team will use Doppler radar to enhance prediction of climate variability and extreme events.

Todd Mockler, plant scientist at the Danforth Plant Science Center, will identify genes that will allow plants to be more drought tolerant.

Todd Mockler, plant scientist at the Danforth Plant Science Center, will identify genes that will allow plants to be more drought tolerant.

The plant team will use innovations in the plant sciences, such as the high-throughput phenotyping technology available at the Donald Danforth Plant Sciences Center, to link traits and genes with environment.

The plant team will use innovations in the plant sciences, such as the high-throughput phenotyping technology available at the Donald Danforth Plant Sciences Center, to link traits and genes with environment.

Kristi Galloway
News Source: 
College of Arts & Science
Departments: 
Biological Sciences

The severe drought of 2012 afflicted Missouri communities, limiting plant productivity and, subsequently, the broader society. 2013 brought higher-than-average precipitation, which resulted in flooding for many areas, and climate change will cause more extreme patterns of hot and cold, wet and dry in the future.

To address this reality, members from the University of Missouri, Missouri University of Science and Technology, the University of Missouri–Kansas City, the University of Missouri–St. Louis, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, Washington University, Lincoln University, the St. Louis Science Center, and St. Louis University have joined together to form the Missouri Transect: Climate, Plants, and Community project. The goal is to better understand and predict the responses of plants and society to climate change. The research and education activities are focused on understanding, modeling, and predicting short- and long-term trends in temperature and water availability; evaluating the impact of these trends on the productivity of native flora and agricultural crops; and assessing how different stakeholder communities are likely to respond to changing climate.

The Missouri Transect project received a $20-million grant from the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), a program initiated by the National Science Foundation (NSF) that supports fundamental research; science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education; and workforce development in areas relevant to the economy.

John C. Walker, Curators' Professor of Biological Sciences and director of the Division of Biological Sciences, will serve as primary investigator for the project. Walker says, “Due to the breadth of the project, there will be interactions between the social sciences, life sciences, engineering, and education. The primary emphasis on multidisciplinary collaboration is what makes this project unique and exciting for our state.”  

The project is made up of four teams in the areas of climate, plant biology, community resilience, and education. Each team has a dedicated role to play in the success of this five-year endeavor.

Climate Team

The overall goal of the climate team is to quantify and model daily, seasonal, annual, and future variability in climate. Research will cover changes in temperature and precipitation across temporal and geographical scales—from days to decades and from acres to regions. One of the first things the team will do is purchase a dual-polarized Doppler radar that will improve Missouri microclimate datasets and enhance prediction of climate variability and extreme events. The radar will also be used for a variety of education and community outreach activities including extensive research in the Hinkson Creek Watershed, which encompasses urban, agricultural, and forest environments. The team will use the radar and observed results to establish a quantitative understanding of precipitation variability across the watershed. 

Pat Market, professor of atmospheric science at MU says, “We’re hoping to connect the dots between climate and precipitation to provide better guidance to the agricultural community in terms of short- and long-term climate forecasts so stakeholders can prepare for the upcoming season and the years to come.” Collected data will be made readily available online along with streamlining the information provided by the Missouri Climate Center.

Plant Team

Using innovations in the plant sciences and high-performance computing, the plant team will try to understand how plants are impacted by climate and ultimately develop crops that are more drought tolerant. “We want to see how different genotypes respond to climate variability and discover the genes that are responsible for a plant’s ability to withstand drought or flooding,” Walker says. “Ultimately, we will manipulate those genes to then produce different varieties of crops with improved water-use efficiency and increased productivity in water-limited conditions.”  

The team will use a variety of different advanced imaging technologies and remote-sensing applications such as unmanned aerial vehicles and robots that can collect data and tissue samples in the field. Then, field data will be integrated with additional data collected in the greenhouse to associate plant genotypes and phenotypes with environmental variation. James Carrington, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center says, “By combining so much of our state’s research capacity and infrastructure in the atmospheric and plant sciences, the Missouri Transect will drive innovation, train a diversified workforce, and catalyze commercial development in areas that are so critical to Missouri’s future.”

Community Team

On the community team, researchers will strive to understand how Missouri communities can manage for resilience under a changing climate characterized by increased periods of drought, flooding, and prolonged summer heat waves.  First, the team will review historical and archival data to understand resiliency in urban settings. Second, the team will survey current land owners to find out how they deal with climate variability in terms of land-management practices. This research will range from larger industrial farmers to individual property owners, including those in low-income areas. Third, the researchers will also assess public lands like Missouri state parks to see how public agencies deal with climate change.

Charlie Nilon, MU professor of fisheries and wildlife says, “I think climate change is often portrayed as something that is inevitable and that people can’t do anything about it. I’m interested to see what people are already doing and what solutions we can implement.” The team will create habitat models to share with landowners and stakeholders to project what things might look like under different climate changes with the goal of helping communities better prepare to face the impacts of climate variability in the future.

Education, Outreach, and Diversity Team

The education, outreach, and diversity team will develop learning tools and opportunities that inform individuals of all ages about climate variability and its predicted effects on agriculture and the natural environment. Troy Sadler, professor of science education at MU, explains one of the team’s projects, “We will create a set of STEM modules for K–12 teachers and learners. The idea is to take the research being done by the Missouri Transect team and disseminate it across the K–12 curriculum so students can participate in classroom conversations, labs, hands-on activities, and a variety of other experiences related to the project.”

In addition to K–12 education, public outreach programs such as a citizens’ science project and a special exhibit at the St. Louis Science Center will help the public learn more about the impact a changing environment has on plants and society. The team especially wants to engage underrepresented groups and women in the project, in order to increase interest in STEM fields. And finally, the workforce-development component of the project will focus on undergraduate and graduate training, bioinformatics training for individuals with physical disabilities, and job creation.

Project leaders have also assembled a team of partners and collaborators with expertise in commercialization to ensure broader impacts are achieved. This advisory committee will evaluate and promote the commercial potential of technologies arising from the project. The team will be led by Keith Gary, director of program development at the Kansas City Area Life Sciences Institute. “Research is great in terms of generating new knowledge and being able to understand climate and its impacts on plants,” he says, “but until those research findings are actually transferred and commercialized, they really don’t impact anybody in terms of quality of life or society as a whole. Technology transfer and commercialization will help ensure overall project sustainability for the state of Missouri.”

Even though the grant has just begun, the application process has already opened doors for public and private collaborations and cross-disciplinary research, education, and training. In the next few years faculty will be hired, technologies will be developed, data will be collected, and new knowledge will be generated. But beyond the immediate impact, this project will touch the lives of Missouri residents in rural and urban communities for decades to come by giving people the tools to predict the impact of climate change on plant productivity.

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