Research: Crops remember drought conditions

23-11-2021 | |
Young corn plants in a period of drought. - Photo: Twan Wiermans
Young corn plants in a period of drought. - Photo: Twan Wiermans

According to new research from the University of Illinois, crops that experience drought conditions or extreme temperatures during their early stages of growth and survive are better able to deal with those same conditions later in their growth cycle.

This ‘memory,’ or adaptation by the plant, could help reduce yield loss that year and help researchers prevent future yield loss. “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 Peng Fu, a postdoctoral researcher at University of Illinois. “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.”

Corn and soybean

This behavior has been observed in corn and soybean fields across Illinois, Indiana, and Iowa. This allows the researchers to look at how crops develop an ability to plan for extreme temperatures and drought, conditions that are only expected to increase in coming years due to climate change.

“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,” Fu said.

Mitigate losses up to 7 percent

Fu and his colleagues analysed almost 20 years of crop yield data and found that corn and soybean plants that had been primed with early-season drought conditions were able to mitigate losses from a late-season drought up to 7 percent. The team used geospatial and remote sensing data to analyse the crop growth over time and the various weather factors. They also used the Agricultural Productions Systems sIMulator (APSIM) to model different outcomes based on various parameters.

“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,” Carl Bernacchi, scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Agricultural Research Service, said.

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Hugo Claver Web editor for Future Farming