By Joanna Steward, College of Arts and Sciences

From the tomatoes in your garden to the grain yield of an acre of wheat, the availability of water significantly influences a plant’s productivity. Even within the same plot, individual plants can sometimes handle drought conditions better than others—and Washington State University plant biologist Asaph Cousins wants to know why.

Cousins is part of a nationwide team hoping to discover the mechanisms that underlie drought responses and identify candidate genes and pathways for improving plant productivity, particularly in bioenergy grasses.

Funded by a five-year, $12 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Cousins and collaborators at the Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, Mo., will develop a plant model—a full genetic and physiological profile—of Setaria viridis, a grass closely related to corn and bioenergy feedstocks.

“Creating a model system will allow us to correlate physiological features like drought resistance to the genetic controls of these features,” said Cousins. Once the process is understood, it may be possible “to identify these characteristics within plant populations and perhaps breed them into biofuel species.”

The ability of bioenergy feedstocks to use water efficiently and produce abundant yields at high density will be major drivers in development of improved varieties that can serve as a replacement for petroleum-based fuels.

The drought study brings together experts from two national research centers and three universities with the aim of producing one of the most extensive molecular and physiological characterizations of plant growth in the field.

In addition to the drought research and his other work on photosynthesis, Cousins teaches introductory biology for undergraduates and two graduate courses in plant metabolism and plant physiology. All are offered through the School of Biological Sciences, part of the WSU College of Arts and Sciences.

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