As stationary organisms, plants are exposed to a wide range of environmental conditions. These can be routine, such the changes in temperature from day to night, or extreme, such as drought or floods. Soils can vary in levels of important nutrients, and can contain too much salt or pollutants. Collectively, non-living factors that adversely affect growth are termed abiotic stresses. While almost no perfect growth environment exists on Earth, many crops are subjected to severe environmental limitations that dramatically reduce yields, and often are a major cause of world hunger. For example, it is estimated that African maize farmers produce approximately 5% of their potential yield, compared with 50% for American farmers. Increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, climate change, and current unsustainable agriculture practices are expected to exacerbate these problems in the coming years.
The goal of abiotic stress research is to produce crops that can withstand drought, cold, and other environmental disruptions, while preserving yield. Abiotic stress research is also important for lowering the impact of modern agriculture on the environment; for example, producing crops that require less irrigation and fertilizer. Researchers are using a variety of approaches including structural, molecular, developmental, and systems biology to understand how alterations in protein structure, signaling pathways, and physiology allow plants to adapt to non-ideal environments.
Labs conducting research in this area include: