The Water Warriors: 12 Hot Drought-Fighters in the advanced bioeconomy

August 17, 2014 |

No water, no crop. No crop, no sector. Simple as that.

As drought again bites this year, what are scientists coming up with to develop drought-resistant strains and drought strategies?

The Digest investigates.

Drought’s been on the radar again this year — though the severe rainfall shortage in California and Brazil has made less headlines that the 2012 US Midwest drought that devastated corn yields and caused a “food vs fuel” ruckus over high crop prices.

Should we be worried? How much impact is there from drought this year, anyway?

Back in March, Raizen said that it expected Brazilian sugarcane production to fall 10% this year due to drought. But it didn’t turn out to be the case. By April, Brazilian agriculture statistics agency Conab expected ethanol production to increase 1.47% to a record of 28.37 billion liters. It was tougher in 2013 in Brazil, as it turned out. In Alagoas and Pernambuco states, cane yields were up to 40% lower because of the drought.

In California, individual cities such as San Jose have passed restrictions on water use to limit watering lawns and landscapes in recent days. Popular restaurant chain Chipotle has tipped that it may knock guacamole off the menu because of price spikes and shortages associated with California’s avocado crop.

For the advanced bioeconomy, drought harms in two ways. First, creating higher input prices that make technologies struggle more to compete with incumbent petroleum. Second, creating higher perceptions of agricultural risk among financiers and investors, leading to higher interest rates for debt and higher hurdle rates for equity.

So, what’s being done about addressing drought-tolerance? Turns out, a lot.

12 Hot Strategies

Here are 12 hot strategies being developed and deployed to change drought outcomes. Plus, two bonus technologies in food-only crops.

Building the New Science

1. Bringing Big Data approaches to identifying genetic opportunities

This week, the BBC covered the topic with a report on the development of advanced mathematical algorithms to help target drought-resistant genes in the genome pool — targeting the more than 7 million germplasm accessions that are housed in more than 1700 agricultural genetic repositories around the world.

Dr. Abdallah Bari told the BBC that new “learning algorithms” could help “targeting the [samples] with a high probability of finding those traits and reducing the time it takes, [and] zone in on the desired traits, such as tolerance to pests, diseases, drought and heat”.

2. Modeling responses to stresses like drought

Last month, a Danforth Plant Science Center project was awarded $1.5 million from the Department of Energy and Department of Agriculture to understand physiologic responses of bioenergy grasses to environmental changes.

The research team will use a model grass, Brachypodium distachyon, to analyze the gene regulatory networks underlying drought stress responses. Specifically, they will identify and characterize the functional features of the genome associated with drought responses and will develop an integrated genome feature map, the Brachypodium Encyclopedia of DNA Elements (called ENCODE), that will enable advanced modeling of complex traits in plants.

3. Identifying a protein that controls water uptake and movement

Last August, a team including Dartmouth researchers uncovered a protein that plays a vital role in how plant roots use water and nutrients, a key step in improving the production and quality of crops and biofuels.  Plant roots use their endodermis, or inner skin, as a cellular gatekeeper to control the efficient use and movement of water and nutrients from the soil to the above-ground parts of the plant.

A key part of that cellular barrier is the Casparian strip, which also helps plants to tolerate stresses such as salinity, drought and flooding.  The researchers found a protein, ESB1, to be involved in the deposition of lignin patches early in the development of the Casparian strip and the fusion of these patches into a continuous band of lignin as the Casparian strip matures.

4. Polypoidy

No, it’s not a carpet fiber, or a disease that years ago carried Grandma away. It’s something that could change biofuels, food, feed and fiber forever — and the company in the lead, Kaiima, raised $65 million last year in its efforts to double the number of copies of DNA in the genome.

You have 46 chromosomes, or rather two complete pairs of 23 each. Which make you a diploid – two sets. The number of chromosomes differs for plants, but also the number of pairs. Some have one set — halploids. Some are diploids. Some have more than two sets — polyploids.

It’s a theoretical advantage that’s been known for decades — but now along comes Kaiima with an industrial-strength version of a technology that it says translates the theoretical into the actual.

Kaiima’s technology — which doubled the castor genome in size without damaging the DNA — boosted yields from 1.6 metric tons per hectare to a range of 5-10 tph in various field trials. The company said it has had success in 30 different plant varieties, and that it is running projects to multiply castor, jatropha, rapeseed, rice, and wheat. It says CGM can boost productivity as much as two-fold by multiplying a plant’s genome, without damaging its DNA. The company says that “with our high yields, fuel from castor oil can be economically competitive with the price of petroleum and can be made available on very large scales. Our varieties are suitable for mechanized farming and harvesting on marginal and under-utilized land. We emphasize compactness as well as drought and salt tolerance.”

5. A new improved model plant system for energy crops

In July 2012, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) awarded a five year, $12.1 million grant to researchers at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and their collaborators at the Carnegie Institution for Science, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, the University of Minnesota and Washington State University to develop a new model plant system, Setaria viridis, to advance bioenergy grasses as a sustainable source of renewable fuels.
Setaria is much closer to the grasses – which are the source of energy crops and staple food crops, than traditional plant model arabidopsis.

The research team will produce one of the most extensive molecular characterizations of plant growth in the field to date, generating several million data points that will be collected from physiological and molecular genetic studies.

In doing so, they hope to discover the mechanisms that underlie drought responses and identify candidate genes and pathways for improving the closely related feedstock grasses. The ability of bioenergy feedstocks to use water efficiently and to produce abundant yields at high density will be major drivers in the development of improved varieties that can serve as a replacement for petroleum-based fuels.

Enhancing and Deploying Crops

6. Michigan State University researchers dramatically increased corn and vegetable production on test farms using revolutionary new water-saving membranes. The subsurface water retention technology uses contoured, engineered films, strategically placed at various depths below a plant’s root zone to retain soil water. The prototype can be used on a broad range of agricultural crops, as well as growing cellulosic biomass feedstock, plants grown specifically for fuel production, on marginal lands.

7. Monsanto put “Drought Guard” in trial, a drought-tolerant corn, with 10,000 acres planted in a trial in 2012 and a first commercial release. But it’s a one-hit wonder gene, taking a bacterial cold shock protein, and trying to essentially infect the plant, thereby conferring the stress-resistant trait. Monsanto’s DEKALB DroughtGard Hybrids have consistently shown about a five bushel per acre yield advantage over competitors’ products. The drought tolerance trait in Genuity DroughtGard Hybrid’s represents the first commercial offering of the company’s joint R&D collaboration with BASF on yield and stress technologies.

In 2013, the product was introduced in the Western Great Plains under stewardship requirements. Farmers who purchased DroughtGard Hybrids for planting in 2013 signed a grain stewardship agreement committing to use the grain as on-farm feed or to sell the grain for domestic use due to pending import approvals in key export markets. With the approval in China, Monsanto will remove the grain stewardship requirements, and grain will no longer be required to remain in the domestic market.

8. In California last year, Ceres announced that field trials conducted by scientists in China have demonstrated that its portfolio of drought tolerance genes provided significant improvements in yield protection in rice, which the company routinely uses to confirm trait performance.

One of Ceres’ genes produced an average of 25 percent more grain than experimental control plants and 20% more grain than rice plants containing a recently deregulated biotech drought trait. Biomass production was improved by 20 percent over the same controls. In addition to greater yield stability under drought conditions, some Ceres genes have also demonstrated yield benefits under normal watering conditions.

Deploying the New Alternative Crops

9. Boosting drought-tolerance in crops like jatropha.

Last July, researchers led by Penn State are working to identify genes to help jatropha be more drought resistant. Researchers looked at a little known gene — JcPIP1 — because a similar gene in the model plant Arabidopsis is known to play a role in drought response. They also examined JcPIP2, a potential drought response gene in Jatropha identified in 2007 by researchers at Sichuan University.

The JcPIP genes code for membrane channels called aquaporins, which are responsible for transporting and balancing water throughout the plant, though exactly how each gene affects aquaporin behavior under environmental stress remains unclear. However, researchers have found that JcPIP1 and JcPIP2 are expressed at different times during a stressful situation, which hints at what roles they play in response and recovery.

10. Switching to more drought-tolerant crops like sorghum

In April, we reported that NexSteppe sold more than 2,500 acres of its Palo Alto high biomass sorghums for biopower in Brazil this past growing season. NexSteppe’s Palo Alto high biomass sorghums can be used alongside bagasse and other sources of biomass to provide a source of renewable baseload power. Due to a drought this year, Brazil is experiencing a shortage of hydropower. NexSteppe’s high biomass sorghums are a welcome addition to Brazil’s energy matrix. Palo Alto hybrid’s heat and drought tolerance allows it to perform well even under this year’s extreme conditions.

In February, Chromatin debuted five new forage sorghum products now available for commercial testing.  These new products express the BMR (brown midrib) trait, which is highly valued by dairy and beef producers for its enhanced digestibility, palatability and nutritional value.  With sorghum’s natural drought tolerance, these new products provide high-yield options for hay, silage and grazing applications, even in regions with limited water resources.

11. Switching to more drought-tolerant crops like camelina

Two weeks ago, we reported that researchers at Oregon State University are finding that growers could earn about $300 per acre from camelina even during very dry years. So far this year the trial plots near Ontario have only received about 6 inches of rain. Willamette Biomass Processors currently buys camelina from Montana so would be happy to have local supplies from the eastern part of the state.

12. Switching to more drought-tolerant crops like guayule

Consider PanAridus. The company was launched in 2010 with a goal to improve the genetics of the guayule (why-you-lee) seed through the biosciences of genetics and selective breeding to the point that it would be profitable for farmers to grow, which has been the primary drawback to growing an alternative source of domestic natural rubber. Already, PanAridus has cut the time it takes to grow the guayule bush in half, making it possible for the crop to be harvested on an annual yield, a critical milestone so that farmers can profit by growing this drought-tolerant plant.

Bonus: advances in traditional food crops

Last June, we reported that Evogene Ltd. and Beijing Dabeinong Technology Group Co. announced a collaboration, focused on improving productivity by increasing fertilizer uptake and drought tolerance in rice. Pursuant to the collaboration agreement, candidate genes discovered and prioritized by Evogene for these key traits will be introduced into DBN’s pipeline for the development of improved rice.

And the month before that we reported that the Government of Canada, the Government of Saskatchewan and the University of Saskatchewan today announced the creation of a new Canadian Wheat Alliance. This initiative will coordinate research and development projects to improve the yield of Canadian wheat by reducing losses under extreme weather conditions such as drought, heat, cold and diseases.The Alliance aims to develop new and improved varieties of wheat that are resistant to disease; have increased tolerance to drought, heat and cold stresses; require less nitrogen fertilizer; and produce increased yields.

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