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UI-Led Research Team Investigates How Plants Respond to Drought

September 30, 2016

A team of scientists led by Daniel Johnson, assistant professor in the Department of Forestry, Rangeland and Fire Sciences in the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources, met in September at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to answer questions about how plants transport water. 

The National Science Foundation awarded over $1 million to the research team to determine how plants respond to stress, such as drought. A better understanding of this stress response will help researchers develop better practices for crop and forest management in drought conditions.

Researchers from all over the world participated in the project, including scientists from Australia and Canada. The diversity of the group was one of the things that made the project successful, Johnson said.

“This was a major breakthrough in the field of plant physiology as many of these scientists had very different opinions on methodology,” Johnson said. “So the idea was to get everyone together in the same room all doing measurements together to figure out what works and what doesn't.”

The team studied American chestnut saplings that were grown at the UI Center for Forest Nursery and Research. The saplings had been separated into groups based upon the amount of water they received before the experiments. The saplings were then X-rayed using a three-dimensional technique at Berkley’s Advanced Light Source facility. 

When a plant doesn’t receive enough water, it can create gas bubbles that can block the plant’s vessels. In some cases, a plant will repair itself. Other times, the plant will die from the blockage. The scientists are interested in understanding why plants react differently. The X-ray results provided information about the plants’ water transport systems. Cross-sections of the sapling stems were examined under a microscope to see which vessels were transporting water. A third technology, called conductivity apparatus, measured the flow of water through the stem. And finally, the samples were placed in a centrifuge to simulate the stress of drought conditions. Measurements from all four processes were then combined to start to create a comprehensive picture of the plants’ internal systems.

“Our understanding of water transport function in plants has always been hindered by a disagreement in the science community on the measurement protocols that produce accurate results,” Johnson said. “This has been a major roadblock for plant physiologists and ecologists who want accurate and accepted scientific models to use in predicting plant population range shifts under climate change. In this instance, this team of highly qualified scientists is all working together to develop unified findings and recommendations. Our intent is to create a methodology that is widely accepted and can be used to propel us forward in creating better measurement, and in turn, better management practices.”

The research team is now analyzing the data gathered from the experiments. Their results will be published, and will be the basis of a workshop to be held in August 2017 at the Ecological Society of America meeting in Portland, Oregon. This workshop will be aimed primarily at graduate and post-doctoral students and will focus on teaching them how to incorporate these methods into their own research. With better methodology in place, the team hopes that more students will feel confident in entering this area of research.

Media Contact:
Kim Jackson
Marketing and Communications Manager, College of Natural Resources

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