The Science in Our Food
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Prairie grasses found in native landscapes play an important role in providing clues into plants’ ability to respond to environmental stress that can enhance cutting-edge science and technology to improve agricultural productivity.
St. Louis was once the home of tall grass prairies, stands of grasses that often grew taller than grown men. The grasses – especially big bluestem, little bluestem, Indian grass and switchgrass - are still common today. Tall grass prairies are a unique and complex ecosystem that protects the environment by providing rich soil, assisting healthy crops to thrive and providing thousands of products to our communities.
Prairie grasses are hardy plants that tolerate drought and heat. They also have deep roots that store carbon and copious leaves that can be used for biofuels. The prairie grasses are close relatives of the corn and sorghum; what we learn about one will ultimately apply to improving crops for food and fuel.
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“The North American prairie is a natural laboratory for the identification of genes and traits associated with drought and heat resistance,” said Michael McKain, an evolutionary biologist working in the Kellogg Lab. “Across the range of many prairie species, some of which are closely related to important crops like corn and sorghum, variation in precipitation and temperature has forced these plants to adapt to extreme heat and low water availability. By looking at evolutionary solutions to these increasingly common agricultural problems, we will be able to improve existing crops and prepare ourselves for climate change. Preservation and restoration of prairies not only safeguards natural diversity but also helps to mitigate the influence of increased carbon emissions through the prairie’s natural role as a global carbon sink.”
Restoring prairies is a high priority at the Danforth Plant Science Center. In 2016, there was a significant redesign of the Center’s landscape through reconstruction of a native Missouri tall grass prairie, including many varieties of flowering plants and an enhanced ecosystem for 12 colonies of managed honey bees whose 500,000 foragers to help pollinate thousands of acres surrounding the Danforth Center. The six-acre prairie showcases the vital connections between native landscapes, biodiversity and agriculture.