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The Root Impact of Climate Change

MU researchers go underground to study how plant roots respond to climate change

COLUMBIA, Mo. — When people discuss climate change, they usually think of impacts above ground, such as atmospheric changes, rising ocean levels, or melting glaciers. Less attention is paid to the effects right under their feet. Now, with the help of a $1.2 million grant from the federal Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy program, University of Missouri researchers are peering underground to see how climate change affects plant roots.

“Water availability and soil temperature can influence root growth, root length and extension, and initiation of new lateral roots and root hairs, which ultimately impact the productivity of the entire plant,” said Gary Stacey, professor of plant sciences and member of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group in the MU Bond Life Sciences Center. “When we include the effects of plant genetic diversity in these responses, the full complexity of the impacts of climate change on the plant root environment becomes clear.”

Stacey and his colleagues are taking aim at this out-of-sight problem by using “advanced systems biology approaches” to determine how water and heat stress affect roots at the scale of a single root hair cell. Systems approaches are more commonly used to measure effects at the whole organism or tissue level, which can dilute the contributions of individual cells.

“The root hair cell is too important to miss,” Stacey said. “Root hair cells function to increase root surface area and to mediate water and nutrient uptake.” 

By using advanced genomic techniques, the researchers will follow changes in proteins, metabolites and other compounds inside the cells in response to variations in temperature and water availability. Sophisticated computational tools at MU also will be used to analyze the data and develop models to examine regulatory networks that control these responses.

By gaining insight into how heat and drought influence a root cell crucial for nutrient uptake, the researchers also hope to improve predictive models of how climate change will impact plants, such as soybeans.

“Useful models of climate change will require accurate, quantitative data that predict impacts of climate change across broad spatial scales, from ecosystems all the way to individual cells,” Stacey said.

The research will use extensive biological datasets derived from isolated soybean root hair cells at MU. The project also makes use of the expertise and advanced genomic technologies available at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), Environmental and Molecular Sciences Laboratory(EMSL) in Richland, Wash.

The Plant Feedstock Genomics for Bioenergy program is funded jointly by the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Biological and Environmental Research and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture.

Two postdoctoral researchers will be hired to work full-time on the project, Stacey said. One graduate student also will participate. The student and postdoctoral fellows will be housed in the laboratories of Stacey and co-investigators Jianlin Cheng and Dong Xu, all in the Christopher S. Bond Life Sciences Center. David Koppenaal and Ljiljana Paša-Tolić at the DOE PNNL-EMSL will also cooperate on the research project.

MU News Bureau: http://munews.missouri.edu/news-releases/2010/0921-the-root-impact-of-climate-change/