Roots of native grasses may hold key to growing crops in drier climates

Clemson University scientists are conducting research to determine if beneficial microorganisms from ruderal plants - weeds - can help corn become more drought-tolerant.

Roots of native grasses may hold key to growing crops in drier climates

Updated Jun 1 



Drought can cause issues for grain crops and three Clemson University scientists are working to get to the root of the problem.


The scientists believe crops have a lesson or two to learn from their weedy relatives when it comes to growing in drier soils. The trick is to harbor beneficial microorganisms on and around the roots to enhance the ability of plants to withstand harsher environments.


An interdisciplinary team led by Vidya Suseela, assistant professor in the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, received a $649,898 grant from the United States Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture (USDA-NIFA) for their study, Systems approach to impart stress resilience: Enhancing crop drought-resilience of crops through cross-inoculation of beneficial rhizobiome and cover cropping.


Suseela is a soil ecologist and studies the interactions of plant roots with surrounding soils and associated microorganisms. Other researchers involved in the project are Nishanth Tharayil, Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, and Barbara Campbell, Department of Biological Sciences.


Many ruderal plants are considered weeds and grow on waste lands where they are exposed to harsh environments. An attribute common to most ruderal species is their ability to foster beneficial microorganisms around roots, which in turn helps them perform better under environmental stress. The researchers will start by identifying microorganisms found near root systems that help provide drought tolerance to ruderal grasses. Corn is the crop used in this study.


“In an effort to make corn more drought-tolerant, we will devise strategies to identify and transfer beneficial microorganisms from the ruderal grasses to corn,” Suseela said. “Plant root-associated microbial communities (microbiomes) can stimulate plant growth and enhance plant tolerance to environmental stress such as drought. Utilizing root-microbiome interactions thus offers a promising path to impart drought tolerance in crops, particularly in the face of changing climate.”


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