UH trains future agricultural scientists to overcome climate change threats to food crops

UH trains future agricultural scientists to overcome climate change threats to food crops

Researchers at the University of Houston are training future agricultural scientists in new methods to protect the world’s food crops — which are often vulnerable to extreme weather events in these days of climate change.

Plant biologist Abdul Latif Khan applies nutrients and microbes to sorghum plants growing in the laboratory at the Harvard University Sugar Land Education Site. As the plants mature, Khan and his research team will monitor the plants’ growth progress and their ability to withstand stress caused by high-salinity soil.

Funded by a $995,805 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the team is expanding research knowledge and building a new curriculum for students, many of whom are from communities currently underrepresented among agricultural industry leaders.

“With this new project, we hope to expand opportunities in agricultural sciences and increase representation by opening doors to inspiring scientists from many backgrounds,” said Abdul Latif Khan, assistant professor of plant biotechnology in the Department of Technology in the H. Cullen College of Engineering. He is also the principal investigator for the project.

Recurring threats to the world’s food supply stem from climate events, such as frosts, floods, prolonged heatwaves and droughts. “For example, 10 or 15 years ago, dry spells lasted for 10 to 14 days. But now we are facing dry spells lasting one or two months,” Khan said.

While plants can withstand such harsh conditions for days, they cannot last for weeks and months. Once they stop blooming, their growth slows and their productivity diminishes. In addition, droughts and heat waves leave an indirect but long-term threat: as heat continues to evaporate moisture, salts concentrate in the soil, creating a hypersaline environment unfavorable for existing crops.

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Prolonged drought can lead to high concentrations of salts in the soil and an unhealthy environment for farmland. College student Jason Perez Preparing the soybean plants that will be studied as they grow in hypersaline soil.

These problems can hit hard as lower yields reduce farmer income. Soils that lose their fertility become more expensive to maintain as cropland. When farming land becomes a financial burden, the owner faces a dilemma. Ultimately, the only viable option may be to sell the land for housing development or other commercial endeavors. One by one, lost agricultural land is contributing to global food insecurity.

“Climate change is affecting the entire Earth, leaving us with less space to produce food. By the beginning of the next century, global food demand will be approximately 30-35% higher than we are seeing now. To reach this higher level, we will need new tools in our agricultural system It does two things: first, it protects the soil system, and second, we don’t lose our farms, which future generations will need to meet food demand.

With climate change expected to bring more extreme weather events to the planet, there is an urgent need for new, affordable and easy-to-use methods for farmers around the world to protect their crops. University of Houston scientists are addressing this challenge through experiments being conducted in the Houston area.

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Graduate student Waqar Ahmed examines the health of sorghum plants in a laboratory environment simulating extreme drought. Developing food crops that can withstand harsh conditions is crucial to ensuring adequate food supplies for future generations.

“In our ongoing research, the overall goal is to improve plant growth and build plant resilience against climate change. We are exploring two approaches. One is to adopt naturally related systems, and the other involves synthetic biology or genetic engineering approaches to produce food.

Research is still ongoing on the effects of climate change on food crops. By involving undergraduate and graduate students in the studies, researchers will exchange new knowledge and skills in the field of food production and climate change biology. The new project activities will start in February 2024.

Joining Khan as co-investigators from the University of Houston are: Venkatesh Balan, associate professor of biotechnology; Yuheng Lin, assistant professor of biotechnology; Hyunsuk Hwang, assistant professor of sociology; and Albert Flavier, teaching professor of biotechnology. Also joining the research team is Xuyang Chen, from Texas A&M University.

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