Crops Have Drought ‘Memory’ That Helps Reduce Yield Losses

A study conducted at the University of Illinois suggests that crops that survive drought and extreme temperatures during the early stages of their growth cycle are better prepared to deal with similar conditions later on. It could help researchers prevent future yield losses by storing this ‘memory,’ or adaptation by the plant.

Researchers have observed that if crops survive an early drought, they perform better when another drought occurs very close to harvest, said Peng Fu, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois.

“It is believed that the crop responds to droughts and adapts to them, so that when one occurs again, crops will already be prepared and the impact is lessened.”

In Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa, this behavior has been observed in corn and soybean fields, unlike other climate change or drought research that doesn’t take place in highly controlled environments. In the coming years, climate change is going to make extreme temperatures and droughts more common, so the researchers will have an opportunity to learn how crops develop the capacity to cope.

We gathered this information based on reports and projections we have seen from different agencies that show that the Midwest is set to see record heat, said Fu, a member of the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) project team who conducted the research. In order to maintain food security in the Midwestern U.S., we must develop crops that can withstand such extreme climate conditions. Understanding how climate change may affect crop yields is extremely valuable.”

By engineering photosynthesis, which allows plants to convert sunlight into energy and yields, RIPE is working to make crops more productive by improving photosynthesis. This project is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research, as well as the U.K. Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office.

Drought Memory in plants 1

The authors of a recent study published in Food and Energy Security examined nearly 20 years’ worth of yield data and determined that plants priming themselves with early-season drought conditions were able to reduce losses from late-season droughts by up to 7%. It was challenging for the group to determine whether the plants were drought primed.

It is extremely unlikely that there is a priming signal, since other factors, such as weather, determine crop yield. To combat this, the team analyzed the crop growth over time and the various weather variables using geospatial and remote sensing data. Moreover, Modeling different outcomes based on various parameters was also carried out with Agricultural Productions Systems Simulator (APSIM).

Researchers at the Carl R Woese Institute for Genomic Biology in Illinois stated that the results indicate future climate trends toward wetter springs and drier summers could adversely affect crop production. “However, it is thought that breeding might be able to bring about a similar result because crops can use an early drought as a “preparation” for a later drought.”

Based on this foundational knowledge, breeding plants with similar responses is the next step of this research project. To adapt to climate change, Fu, Bernacchi, and others from RIPE will move forward with the development of drought-resistant crops.

Source: Peng Fu et al. Drought imprints on crops can reduce yield loss: Nature’s insights for food security. Food and Energy Security, 2021; DOI: 10.1002/fes3.332

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