September 4, 2018

Inside Mizzou Podcast:
Drought, Ep. 3

We’ve heard about it a lot this summer: drought. Most of Missouri is abnormally dry, and over 30 counties are experiencing extreme drought. But what exactly does all this talk about drought mean to the state and its people? 

Joining Chancellor Cartwright this week are Bob Sharp, professor in the Division of Plant Sciences and director of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group; and Shannon King, a doctoral student in biochemistry working under Professors Scott Peck (biochemistry), Felix Fritschi (plant sciences) and Bob Sharp. They discuss the ways we understand and study drought, as well as explore how the research happening right here at Mizzou can help Missouri communities combat this pressing challenge.

More about Inside Mizzou

Please note, all statistics cited in podcast reflect data as of Aug. 15, 2018.

Listen (20:27)

Listen on Apple Podcasts Get it on Google Play Listen to Inside Mizzou on RadioPublic Spotify


Moderator: [00:00:08] From the classroom to the cornfield, journalism to SEC athletics, the University of Missouri works 52 weeks a year, every year. This is Inside Mizzou — real stories, real discoveries and real impact of the Mizzou community. Today’s episode is called “Drought.” We’ve all been feeling it in Columbia — the high heat, the lack of rain. This past April was our driest April since record keeping began 129 years ago. But Columbia’s drought is just a fraction of the problem. With nearly 95 percent of the state abnormally dry and over 30 counties experiencing extreme drought, we’ve got to ask: What does all this talk about drought mean to Missouri? Joining Chancellor Cartwright today are Dr. Bob Sharp, professor in the Division of Plant Sciences and Director of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group; and Shannon King, a doctoral student in biochemistry working under doctors Scott Peck, biochemistry; Felix Fritschi, plant sciences; and Bob Sharp. Thank you all for being here. Bob, I want to start with you and what we already know about drought. How do we begin to understand it and study its impact on the environment?

Dr. Bob Sharp: [00:01:25] Well, drought is an extremely complex problem to study. It penetrates all aspects of our lives, even from our own backyards. We’re beginning to see the effects of that this year through the affect on crop production and farmers’ fields and associated effects on feed availability for livestock, for example, and, ultimately, on food and water supplies for the population and on the economy. Drought is in fact recognized as the most important limiting factor for crop production worldwide, as well as in the U.S. and in the Midwest. So, our focus as plant scientists is on how drought impacts crop growth and development. In my own research program, I’m particularly interested in the effects of drought on root development in plants. Roots, of course, are the part of the plant that takes up water from the soil, and so roots are critically important to help plants continue to grow and thrive and ultimately survive under drought conditions. But because roots are underground, and also because root systems are extremely complex, they’ve received relatively less research attention and remain quite poorly understood. To illustrate what I mean by that complexity: While a mature corn plant may have 20 or so leaves, it will have hundreds of thousands of roots, and those roots extend — some of them — as far as six feet or more into the soil. So, that complexity represents a formidable research challenge to us as plant scientists. We’re fortunate at the University of Missouri to have specialized plant-growth facilities. These include controlled environment plant-growth chambers that allow us to study in a very controlled way in a lab setting, also through state-of-the-art greenhouses and extending to the field. Particularly important is the development of a new Plant Growth Facilities complex on the east campus that includes specialized height-extended growth chambers and greenhouses that allow us to study both tall plants — the shoots themselves — for example, like corn or switchgrass, but also allows us to study deep root systems of plants growing under controlled-environment facilities. We’re very fortunate — both our own program and also the plant-science community across campus — is very fortunate to have this new facility under development, which is planned to open next spring. Our studies also extend to the real-world drought environment in the field, and we have an excellent network of field facilities associated with the University of Missouri, particularly for the drought studies we can take advantage of the so-called rainout shelters that my colleague Dr. Felix Fritschi established a few years ago and that Shannon utilizes in her research. She can tell us a little bit more about that.

Moderator: [00:04:17] Yes so, Shannon, being a part of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group, you’re studying this very interesting concept that — when I was reading it over, I really want to learn more about — how to develop drought-tolerant corn. So, can you tell us a little bit more about developing that sort of technology or just diving more into that theme?

Shannon King: [00:04:38] Yes. Like Bob mentioned, we have really great facilities here at Mizzou — we can look at things in both a lab and field scale. So, my particular part of our project is looking at the field aspect of the corn out in the field. I have a great group of research specialists and grad students and postdocs that look at the lab side, but especially during the summer we’re looking out in the field on how corn can respond to drought in the field. So, at Bradford Research Center we have what we call rainout shelters. They are about 60 X 50 mobile greenhouses on tracks that have the ability to deploy over the top of my field whenever it rains. Because, as you know, some years in Missouri are dry, some years are extremely wet, and I’ve been here for both. So, these rainout shelters really provide us the opportunity to research drought regardless of what’s happening outside. Because this year it’s a drought — last year it was pretty wet. But I was still able to get some samples understanding how drought occurs in Missouri and can study that for looking at the different changes inside these roots that are allowing them to keep growing. Then we can compare that to results found in the lab by my colleagues.

Moderator: [00:05:49] So, Bob, and you also mentioned this about the importance of rainout shelters, but how do the Bradford Research Center’s rainout shelters help you study the effects of drought here in mid-Missouri.

Shannon King: [00:06:03] So, like I said, sometimes it rains, and that will ruin a drought experiment if it gets on the corn, you know. Because we’re trying to stress these plants out. And so this greenhouse is able — mobile greenhouse, essentially — can move over the top of the field whenever it rains. So, it protects my field from the drought so I can impose a drought on these plants. It prevents them from getting any moisture unless I specifically apply it. I do apply moisture to some plants to compare them between what is normally happening under a non-drought year to plants that are actually being experienced to drought.

Dr. Bob Sharp: [00:06:37] To follow up on that, I already mentioned drought is obviously a very complex problem. That’s particularly true here in the Midwest. So, some drought environments are more predictable, where a drought would proceed progressively throughout a season. In Missouri, that is certainly not the case, as we are experiencing a severe drought at the moment, but there may be substantial thunderstorm occurrences, and, as Shannon said, that can ruin her experiments. And so, it makes studying drought in Missouri challenging. But it’s important to study it in Missouri because of particular soil types and disease pressures that are specific to our particular environments here in the state. So, instead of doing our work in Arizona or Chile or something like that, it’s important that we conduct drought studies in the field in Missouri. But to do that, because of the complexity of our climate, the rainout shelters really facilitate efficiency of research. Shannon and many others can conduct their research somewhat more reliably than we would be able to do otherwise.

Shannon King: [00:07:40] Yeah, the great thing about these rainout shelters is that I plant my corn straight into the Missouri soil with a tractor similar to what a farmer would use. Really the only difference between how I’m planting my field and growing my field is that there’s a giant shed over the top of my field whenever it rains, and we pull the shed off whenever it’s not raining so the corn can get sun. And they’re planted in 30 inch rows, and then I just dig up my plants to do extensive research on them. But other than that, they’re planted right into Missouri soil so we can understand how drought is affecting plants here.

Moderator: [00:08:12] Well, this is a topic that I am really not familiar with. But Chancellor Cartwright, I kind of want to hear about your thoughts. Do you have any personal experiences with drought, and — kind of a two-parter question to this — do you think drought has a unique impact on the Midwest?

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:08:28] Well, I don’t have any personal experience, other than the fact that my in-laws have been in farming for many years. I’ve been married for over 30 years now, and my wife and I have always paid attention to the weather because we know the impact that it has on farmers’ lives. It does matter whether you get that one tenth of an inch of rain or, you know, half an inch of rain, and when you get it and how that impacts the yield for the year really makes a big difference. And so, we’ve always paid attention to what’s happening in the Midwest. We’ve always been looking at what the weather looks like. We know how variable it is across the Midwest. We know that different states can be impacted differently. And that, of course, creates a challenge economically for our farmers because there could be some states where there’s no drought at all and their yields would be particularly good. And, of course, the overall market is dictated by the quantity of the crop that’s being produced overall. So, those within the drought region are particularly suffering. During that 30-plus years, you know, we’ve had an opportunity to see good years and bad years on the family’s farm. And we also see the difference that it makes in their lives every year. It’s not just the crop production as such, but as Dr. Sharp said, it’s the fact that those crops aren’t being produced has an impact — or at least the yield is lower than you’d want — has a big impact on the animals that you’re producing. And so, how do you feed them? And that, of course, has a huge impact on our whole society. So, I think it’s really a critical area that we need to be thinking about and one that I do think is — of course, the Midwest has a particular impact on what’s happening here in the Midwest because we are such a remarkable producer of agricultural products. And that is the whole chain — that water and the lack thereof, of course, has as an impact on the entire agricultural food chain. So, I see that it does have a big impact financially and economically certainly on the Midwest and, therefore, on our farmers who are doing so much to help this great country.

Shannon King: [00:10:46] I also, too, have a relationship with farming. My grandpa, my best friend, my boyfriend — they’re all farmers. So, not only do I get to study drought at work, I get to understand how it’s affecting farmers in my daily life. It’s just kind of surrounded my entire life currently.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:11:04] So, you have some of those phone calls, too, where you talk about exactly how much rain it was last night.

Shannon King: [00:11:07] Oh my gosh, yes. Yeah. You would think that we were just like constantly small talking because we’re constantly talking about the weather.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:11:14] But, you know, I think people underestimate how important that quantity of rain is. Of course you don’t because you both know and understand this, but I find it fascinating. I actually, can I — I had a question, too. Can you talk a little bit about your plots? Because when I visit the Bradford farms, what I find remarkable is you can look at a plot, and you’ll see the variability in the plants. And can you talk about what is producing that variability and how you’re actually setting up your experiment to actually look at the variability in the plant growth?

Shannon King: [00:11:46] Yeah, so, whenever I plant my field I have — currently the way I have my experiment set up — I have two different lines of corn. So, I have two different abilities to handle drought: One we consider more drought sensitive, and one we consider more drought tolerant. So, you can kind of see a difference between those two. But also, too, whenever they get towards the end of my experiment, I’ve really stressed out these plants. And so, whenever corn plants get stressed they start to curl their leaves, and so that’s my favorite — when I can see that I’ve curled the leaves of my stressed plants. It’s kind of sad because they’re all curled up, but they’re doing exactly what I needed them to do. They’re stressed, and then near them are well-watered plants to serve as the control to make sure what I’m seeing and the drought stress is what I’m seeing. I have these happy, green, photosynthesizing plants right next to these curled up, stressed plants, so that’s some of the other variability you see.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:12:37] And Professor Sharp, can you talk a little bit, too, about the level of complexity and the technology that is actually being employed to look at what’s happening with these drought-resistant plants?

Dr. Bob Sharp: [00:12:49] Yes. Again, it’s one of the advantages we have here at MU. We have a great interdisciplinary strength in plant biology research. So, I was introduced as director of the Interdisciplinary Plant Group on campus. This is a group of over 50 faculty and their research teams from multiple departments and divisions across several colleges across campus. And we all have our own speciality, but by working together in teams, we can address complex problems — and many different complex problems — of interest to the faculty across the group. Obviously, my own speciality is on, as I said, on growth regulation on the drought. But by having colleagues that can bring different disciplines and specialties to bear on that question, we’ve put together a team of seven faculty from MU that are funded by the National Science Foundation to study corn root growth under drought in lab studies and extending to the field. Shannon is one of the graduate students as part of that team. So, that interdisciplinary excellence across multiple specialities within plant biology research allows us to come together to address complex problems.

Moderator: [00:14:00] What are some alternate ways that Mizzou is translating its research to help Missouri and Missourians combat challenges, kind of like drought. Because I know you’re doing drought workshops, is that correct?

Dr. Bob Sharp: [00:14:12] Ok so, yes. As we’ve emphasized in this discussion this morning, drought is a very complex problem. So, the overall research community that a land-grant institution like the University of Missouri can offer allows us to tackle these complex problems. So, I’ve emphasized the excellence and expertise and fundamental plant biology research, but that extends to animal biology research, through the socioeconomic aspects of the impacts of drought on the economy and, ultimately, via distribution of knowledge to the citizens of the state via the MU Extension program. And so, that comprehensive nature of the overall research community at MU greatly facilitates tackling these sort of complex problems. Within the plant biology research area itself, the Interdisciplinary Plant Group, the IPG, provides an internationally recognized center of excellence in plant research and education at MU. And this helps to recruit the best and brightest graduate students and faculty to the university. That in turn helps us train and prepare the next generation of plant scientists who then continue their careers throughout the state, throughout the country and, in fact, throughout the world. Similarly, the IPG helps promote plant biology research and education at the university by inviting and hosting top-flight scientists from around the world to visit campus. This is particularly via our our annual International Plant Biology Symposium that the IPG hosts every year. In fact, we just celebrated our 35th annual symposium, so if you multiply 35 by 20 or 30 scientists that we’ve brought in internationally over the years, that’s been huge exposure to the plant biology program at the university through that mechanism. Of particular relevance to our discussion today, the IPG will be hosting as part of our annual symposium series the International Society of Root Research Meeting here in the summer of 2021. This is a major meeting, obviously focused on root research that’s held a summer internationally every three years or so. In fact, Shannon and I have both just returned from the 10th meeting of the society that was held in Jerusalem in Israel just a few weeks ago, and it attracted about 350 plant scientists from many countries around the world. So, again we’ll be hosting that meeting here in 2021.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:16:44] You can see that we have remarkable scientists who are actually working on this at Mizzou. And one of the things that I’d like to emphasize, too, is that through MU Extension, we provide a lot of resources that people can have access to. We have a drought monitor map, a drought impact reporter. There’s a lot of information about that through the Missouri climate center that actually shows local climate information, and it really is allowing a mechanism where people can ask of their local extension officers questions about what’s going on, and we can then get those people connected with some of these specialists that we have on campus to actually give the best advice and best information that we have available. Again, it’s a way that the University of Missouri is showing how we are doing as much as we can for the people of Missouri.

Moderator: [00:17:35] And Bob, I am getting kind of some information that there’s also going to be something where you’re going to go to China to perform or lay out your research or talk about your research?

Dr. Bob Sharp: [00:17:46] Yes. So, this is a broader extension of our activities. In fact, it’s a so-called broader impacts activity on the National Science Foundation grant that I was talking about a little earlier. In August, a group of graduate students, postdocs, faculty and Dean Daubert — dean of the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources — will be joining us for a workshop in collaboration with China Agricultural University — a workshop in Beijing — but also at a research center in Ganzhou province, which is in the northwest very arid area of China where water use efficiency is absolutely critical for the continuation of agriculture in that semi-desert environment. And so, a group of us are traveling to China to experience that firsthand but also to provide international experience for our graduate students working in this area. But again to build partnerships with not just the plant biology program but broader agriculture water-related interests in the College of Agriculture and at the university as a whole. So, it’s a great opportunity for the university to build a partnership with them. We’d like to see that extend to faculty and graduate-student exchange programs, for example, in the coming years.

Shannon King: [00:19:19] And, just to add a small tidbit on there: It’s not quite as far away as China, but our group will be going to the state fair and interacting with fairgoers to explain why we study drought and why we study roots and kind of let them interact with some roots — kind of explain how they grow — and hopefully get some kids or fairgoers excited about science and what we do here at Mizzou.

Moderator: [00:19:20] Well, thank you all for being here today. One more thing before we all leave: What’s the most terrifying word in nuclear physics?

Shannon King: [00:19:33] Um. “Uh oh?” I don’t know.

Moderator: [00:19:36] “Oops!”

Shannon King: [00:19:36] Oh yeah!

Moderator: [00:19:37] So, you were good.

Shannon King: [00:19:37] I was close.

Chancellor Cartwright: [00:19:37] You were very close.

Moderator: [00:19:44] Our audio engineer is Aaron Hay. Our featured music is “Forest Park Rhapsody,” composed by MU undergraduate and music composition major, Ben Colagiovanni. You can find more information about Ben and his piece on the Inside Mizzou webpage. Make sure to join us next time, and keep an eye out for the chancellor’s newsletter to stay on top of what’s happening at Mizzou. Thanks for joining us on this episode of Inside Mizzou. See you around the columns!