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Wisconsin Researcher's Work Could Help Crops Survive Climate Change

Susan Bence
Medical College of Wisconsin biochemist Francis Peterson next to nuclear magnetic spectrometer used in his human health research. For international collaboration focused on crop survival, Peterson relies on X-ray crystallography.

There’s promising new research that could help farmers weather climate change. A team of scientists is experimenting with a hormone that naturally occurs in plants. The hormone slows the plant’s growth – meaning it would need less water during a drought.

There’s more research to be done, but it could eventually lead to a drought-survival spray farmers could use on crops.

READ:2019 Was The 2nd-Hottest Year On Record, According To NASA And NOAA

The research team is primarily made up of plant biologists scattered around the globe. One member however is a biochemist based in the Milwaukee area. Francis Peterson is a professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Most of his research involves human health, like working to help prevent cancer. But the plant-related partnership came to life when Dr. Sean Cutler, a plant cell biologist from the University of California-Riverside, asked Peterson to figure out the structure of a plant receptor Cutler himself had discovered.

"It’s a naturally occurring receptor in plants and people had been looking for it for decades. It had been misidentified a couple of times," Peterson says.

Since Cutler’s discovery, the team has been attempting to manipulate the receptor to perform different functions.

"One of the things we did, if this is going to be used for preventing plants from dying in a drought, you want to have a chemical that would activate the receptor and lower the plant’s water use,” Peterson says.

He says multiple papers and field experiments have followed. The team’s most recent study was published in Science Magazine.

"In this current paper, what we’ve done is actually identify a new compound that is as potent as the original plant hormone," Peterson says.

As promising as the research appears, Peterson stops short of predicting how soon farmers will be able to apply their science to agricultural fields.

"What the impact on the world is going to be, I think, is still open. Does it have the potential to help farmers? Yes. Does it have the potential to impact other areas? Definitely," Peterson says.

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Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.<br/>