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NSF Grant to Fund Research On Sunflower-Climate

Thursday, August 24, 2023
filed under: Research and Development

        Sunflower has long been touted as a drought-tolerant crop.  Its strong and deep root system helps it grow in even the driest conditions.  Many producers turn to sunflower to diversify their crop rotations, even though not all hybrids are exactly suited to the climates of the top sunflower-producing states, including the Dakotas and Colorado.
        And as the world gets hotter and drier, that could mean more producers might give the sunflower a try.
        USDA research geneticist Dr. Brent Hulke is a part of a team of scientists looking at how sunflower adaptation through plant breeding is affecting readiness for climate change in the Great Plains.  Nolan Kane, Sarah Elmendorf and Colin Khoury* are the other co-principal investigators on this project.  The team recently received a $1.2 million, three-year grant from the National Science Foundation to do the research.
        “The program is centered around using data and models to develop practical solutions for problems associated with climate change,” Hulke explains. He and his fellow researchers will focus on finding a solution to the problem of developing tools that allow sunflower breeders to be able to adapt sunflower varieties to a range of climates.  Those climates include the current ones in the sunflower growing region, as well as climates that could exist in the future.
        As the climate warms globally, flowering time, animal migrations, insect emergence and other harbingers of spring occur earlier on average than in centuries past.  However, the genetic and environmental drivers behind these changes is not always clear — nor are the consequences of shifts in timing.
        “We’ve certainly had droughts in the last 50 years in areas that grow sunflower, so we have data associated with drought conditions in those areas,” Hulke notes.  “So, we could use that to start modeling and ask:  If we were to see droughts more often, what kind of changes do we need to make in sunflower varieties to make them more adaptive?”
        Genes associated with flowering time are a key part of the research because, Hulke says, they are usually associated with adaptation to environment.  “So maybe there’s a certain arrangement of flowering time genes that allow plants to better deal with stressful midsummer conditions.  And if that’s the case, we would like to identify that.”
        Hulke says that while this research will depend heavily on data, no new data will be collected.  They’ll use historical data that have already been collected.  Researchers will pull the data from extension variety trial pamphlets from various states.  They will analyze decades of USDA sunflower breeding trials across dozens of sites and evaluate how particular plant genotypes grow, flower and set seed under varying field conditions. They’ll also look at how the timing of their flowering interacts with environment to affect yield.
        Detailed genomic information from the breeding program will help characterize the specific genes underlying flowering time and performance under diverse climate conditions. This research will facilitate breeding for improved climate resilience — resilience critical for food security and for reducing environmental costs of agricultural production.
        So, what does it all mean for producers?  Hulke says there could be several benefits.
        “If plant breeders are able to be more efficient with how they use resources and produce varieties that react to changes in weather year after year, producers will have more varieties that are adapted to different and contrasting environmental conditions.  That means farmers could be able to customize varieties for their farm.             
        “They’re already seeing that type of technology in corn and even in soybeans a little bit,” Hulke says.  “We would love to see that in sunflower.  A major producer complaint we’re seeing is that there just aren’t enough varieties adapted to specific environments.  This could allow us to be able to better serve producers in the future.”
        And that could translate into more producers planting more acres of sunflower.  Hulke points out that there is a lot of buzz about renewable diesel right now, and sunflower could play an important role in that sector.
        “A lot the producers in biodiesel have already said soybean can’t be a reliable source of oil because there's just not enough oil in soybeans with the acres available to generate that level of biodiesel,” he explains.  “We’d have to go to something that's more ‘oil dense,’ which basically leaves you with sunflower. 
          “So, there is investment in that, and I think we’re going to see acres increase anyway.  If we’re ready with better varieties, that certainly helps make the case for those biodiesel producers or farmers to grow sunflower — and it should make it an easier choice for producers as well.” — Jody Kerzman
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