Michigan State University main website

Finding Ways to Use Natural Plant Adaptations to Feed the World

Robert Van Buren

Robert VanBuren, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Horticulture, explores how the mechanisms and characteristics that help plants be resilient to drought could lead to new advances in agriculture.

The demand for agricultural crops is expected to more than double by 2050 and the world population to top 9 billion people. Doubling crop production to feed the world comes with significant challenges, including changes in climate and weather.

Robert VanBuren is an assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture and the Plant Resilience Institute at MSU. He explores how the mechanisms and characteristics that help plants be resilient to drought could lead to new advances in agriculture.

“Drought is the most pervasive issue we face in agriculture today, and it causes massive losses in crop yield and quality throughout the world,” said VanBuren. “Drought events are increasing in severity and frequency and the need to combat drought is urgent.”

His research focuses on ways to make global agriculture more sustainable by producing higher yield crops that need less water and have increased resistance to environmental stresses including drought, high temperatures, flooding, disease and insect pests.

He is studying the natural evolution of certain plants to better adapt to arid conditions and how these so-called “resurrection plants” can tolerate severe water loss. VanBuren explains that these are a small group of plants that can withstand near complete drying and enter a dormant state for months or years until the return of water.

When rains return, they fill their cells with water, fix any damage, and are back to normal photosynthesis and growth within a few days. Resurrection plants are understudied, according to VanBuren, “but they may be useful for engineering improved drought tolerance into crop plants. Other plants (such as cacti, pineapple and orchids) store carbon dioxide for photosynthesis at night to reduce water loss. These plants use up to 80 percent less water than plants with a typical photosynthesis process. My lab is using these plants as models to unravel the genetic basis for these traits. “There is a pressing need to identify genetic sources of drought tolerance and develop new cultivated plants that produce well in current and projected future climates,” said VanBuren. “Crop improvement is the cornerstone of global food security.”

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit www.futuresmagazine.msu.edu. For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at whetst11@msu.edu or call 517-355-0123.

Comments are closed.