Research Collaboration Aims to Enhance Cereal Crop Resilience to Acidic Soils and Improve Agriculture Sustainability

ST. LOUIS, MO., April 4, 2024Acidic soil caused by changing climate patterns threatens agriculture sustainability across the globe. But the problem goes far beyond rising temperatures. One major cause for concern is more acidic soil, a product of increasing rainfall. Acidic soils with low pH are widespread globally and common in tropical and sub-tropical regions, where food security is a serious challenge. Climate change has exacerbated the problem. Acidic soil can result in aluminum toxicity, putting further stress on global agriculture. A new collaborative research team from the US and Brazil received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to tackle aluminum toxicity by uncovering connections between gene regulation and aluminum tolerance in maize and sorghum. This work aims to accelerate the development of more resilient cereal crops and stronger food supplies.

“The climate is rapidly transitioning into much harsher crop cultivation conditions,” said Thomas Gingeras, PhD, a professor at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, who is serving as the lead principal investigator on the project.  “Aluminum toxicity is a significant stress in acidic soils. It damages roots and makes crops more susceptible to drought and mineral deficiency. These effects contribute to serious food insecurity around the world.”

The project builds on evidence that quantitative variation underlying aluminum tolerance in maize and sorghum is caused by long- and short-distance gene regulation both at the genetic and epigenetic levels. Collectively, the team has strong expertise in cereal crop genetics, cutting-edge genomics and epigenomics technologies, and functional characterization of plant phenotypes. These approaches will be integrated to identify and explore useful and novel variation for adaptation to acidic soils on a multigenic scale. 

Andrea Eveland, PhD, associate member at the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, is a collaborating principal investigator on the project. Her team will leverage single-cell genomics approaches to analyze how gene networks are re-wired in response to aluminum stress across diverse lines of maize and sorghum, including aluminum tolerant and sensitive lines. Eveland’s team has recently implemented an in-house sorghum transformation and gene editing pipeline, which will be key to functionally validating genetic elements that are predicted to enhance resilience on acidic soils. 

“We are now in a position to make step changes in crop productivity by making plants more resilient to erratic climate pressures,” said Eveland. “With advances in single-cell genomics and gene editing we are better able to harness the genetic diversity that exists within crop species for their improvement. Our partnership with Embrapa in Brazil offers the opportunity to directly test crop resilience to aluminum stress in controlled field trials.”

The project will also train early-career scientists from the US and Brazil on cutting-edge genomic approaches to addressing the effects of climate change. In addition to the Danforth Center and Cold Spring Harbor, the research team includes researchers from Embrapa Maize and Sorghum, and the New York Genome Center.

About the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center
Founded in 1998, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center is a not-for-profit research institute with a mission to improve the human condition through plant science. Research, education, and outreach aim to have an impact at the nexus of food security and the environment and position the St. Louis region as a world center for plant science. The Center’s work is funded through competitive grants from many sources, including the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Agency for International Development, and The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and through the generosity of individual, corporate, and foundation donors. Follow us on X at @DanforthCenter.

Donald Danforth Plant Science Center contact: Karla Roeber,