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Crops have a “drought memory” that prepares them for tough times

Crops that suffer drought conditions when in early development are better able to survive these same conditions later in life, according to a new study from the University of Illinois. The researchers think that this “drought memory” could be used to prevent crop yield losses in the future. 

“What we have seen is if the crop survives an early drought, because of that experience they perform better when a drought occurs very close to harvest,” said Dr. Peng Fu. “We think the crop responds to the drought and adapts to it, so when it happens again the crops have already planned for the drought and the impact is lessened.”

The research was carried out, not in highly controlled laboratory conditions but on agricultural land on corn and soybeans in America’s bread basket of Illinois, Indiana and Iowa. The drought conditions observed are likely to increase into the future, so this research could be a window into the agriculture of tomorrow. 

“Our motivation here is based on the climate change reports and projections we have seen from different agencies that say the Midwest is seeing record heat,” explained Dr. Fu.

“Since it will continue to happen, we need to develop crop cultivars that can cope with these extreme climates to ensure food security in the U.S. Midwest. Understanding how much climate change could impact crop yield is very important.”

Dr. Carl Bernacchi is a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and an associate professor in the department of Plant Biology at the University of Illinois. He also leads the Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency (RIPE) project, which aims to genetically engineer plants that can photosynthesize more efficiently to increase crop yields.

“These results suggest that future climate trends toward wetter springs and drier summers could worsen crop production,” said Dr. Bernacchi. “However, the evidence that crops can use an early drought to ‘prepare’ for a later drought suggests that opportunities might exist to achieve a similar outcome through breeding.”

The study authors emphasized that drought is and will continue to be a main factor contributing to yield loss. “It is imperative to adopt strategies to help crops develop enhanced resistance to drought to ensure global food security for an increasing population while conserving water resources.”

The research is published in the journal Food and Energy Security.

By Zach Fitzner, Staff Writer

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