Different aspects of drought resilience with Anna Carroll and Anna Buetow

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Episode transcription:


Drew Lyon: Hello, welcome to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. I’m your host, Drew Lyon, and I want to thank you for joining me as we explore the world of small grains production and research at Washington State University. In each episode, I speak with researchers from WSU and the USDA-ARS to provide you with insights into the latest research on wheat and barley production.

If you enjoy the WSU Wheat Beat podcast, do us a favor and subscribe on iTunes or your favorite podcast app and leave us a review so others can find the show too.


My guests today are Anna Buetow and Anna Carroll. Anna Buetow is from Whitman College where she is a biochemistry, biophysics, and molecular biology major. And, Anna Carroll is from Eastern Washington University where she is an environmental biology major.

My two guests participated in the USDA-funded Research and Extension Experiences for Undergraduate(s) (REEU) program this past summer. The program aims to expose students from WSU and other universities to different career paths in agriculture and provide them with the skills for advancing their career paths. Hello, Anna Buetow.

Anna Buetow: Hi.

Drew Lyon: And hello, Anna Carroll.

Anna Carroll: Hello.

Drew Lyon: So, can you take a minute to just tell our listeners about yourselves and what brought you to the Wheat Beat podcast today?

Anna Buetow: Alright. Well, my name is in Anna Buetow. I’m from Whitman College, as you’ve heard. My partners Sonny, who isn’t here, and Anna Carroll, who is with me here today, we’re part of the REEU and I joined because I was really interested in genetic research and I wanted to learn more about academia, hopefully being a part of research like this one day.

Anna Carroll: Yeah, and I joined this program because I’m very interested in plants and sustainable agriculture and wanted to get some hands-on experience in research. And it’s definitely been a great program for that.

Drew Lyon: Okay, good. Yeah, I think a lot of people don’t realize all the science that goes into agriculture these days, so hopefully it opened your eyes there a little bit. So, I guess, you maybe have explained it a little bit, but why did each of you join the REEU program?

Anna Buetow: I joined mostly because, well, as you heard, I wanted research experience so I could maybe move forward in academia and this was a great opportunity.

Anna Carroll: Yeah, and for me it was just kind of getting my hands on being able to work with plants, get some experience in the field of sustainable agriculture while I’m still an undergrad to kind of confirm that that was the direction I wanted to go in and also just to get some experience under my belt.

Drew Lyon: Okay. I’m kind of curious—one of you is from Whitman College, one from Eastern Washington, how did you learn about the program?

Anna Carroll: My school has a Canvas–that’s the online learning platform–and there’s a group for people within my major and they send out announcements about different programs, scholarships, all kinds of programs, and classes, all kinds of information like that. And they sent out an advertisement for it.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Anna Buetow: I also learned about it through my major. Yeah, my advisor was really great about giving me some information about this opportunity.

Drew Lyon: Okay, very good. So, why don’t you each talk a little bit about what you’re working on? Are you working on the same thing or different things?

Anna Carroll: Different things.

Drew Lyon: Okay.

Anna Buetow: Well, I am working with pennycress, also known as Thlaspi arvense, and essentially we are studying how the knockout using CRISPR-Cas9 of several different genes in different transgenic lines are going to affect the vegetative lipid content in order to study how the overall lipid concentration can be used for things like biofuels or other commercially, I guess, profitable cover crops.

Drew Lyon: Okay. And you?

Anna Carroll: I am looking at alpha amylase expression in germination in wheat seeds. So, alpha amylase is what breaks down the starch in the wheat seed or the wheat grain, which causes some quality issues in the final product if that happens prior to harvest. So, my project is looking at whether that is directly tied to like visible germination–so the emergence of the primary root–or if it’s happening on kind of a separate timeline.

Drew Lyon: Okay. This work have anything to do with drought, drought resilience components? What are the components of drought resilience?

Anna Carroll: I don’t think either of our specific projects in our labs are to do with drought resilience, but we also, through the Extension program, have been doing research into drought resilience and the components of it, the different aspects of it.

So, some primary components of drought resilience are the climate conditions, management practices, which includes reduced tillage, integrated grazing, [and] cover crops. Mostly it comes down to increasing soil organic matter to increase the soil’s capacity to hold water.

There’s a great summary report that the WSDA released, the Drought Resilience Survey from the 2021 drought, and that had a lot of great information for us on which practices have the most impact on getting crops through drought. We’ve also been interested in learning about how the plant itself responds to stress, and Anna [Buetow] has very specifically been looking into the auxin hormone signaling aspects of this, so she’s going to tell us a lot about that in just a moment. But we’re seeing how those biochemical pathways contribute to growth and maintenance of plants in low water climates.

Drew Lyon: Okay. So, in addition to the research you’re doing, you’re also brushing up on some of the Extension-type information?

Anna Carroll: Yeah, yeah. We’ve been participating in some of the field days and getting to talk to farmers and do some separate research.

Drew Lyon:  Okay. Broad, broad area of exposure to different aspects of agriculture and what the land-grant university does.

Anna Carroll: Yeah, very much.

Drew Lyon: Anna, tell us a little bit about the role that auxins play in plants.

Anna Buetow: Well, auxin is just one of many types of plant hormones. However, it is probably one of the most well-known. It functions differently in wheat and other crops, but it’s an important type of hormone in central signaling. So, it impacts many processes, including growth and reproduction, which as we know is very important for crop yield. But essentially, they signal the plant to grow their shoots towards the light and promote root growth, circulating photosynthates and other nutrients to parts that don’t photosynthesize themselves, like the roots.

This is really important in how they reach water in their underground systems and that’s obviously a big part of how they take up water, especially in stressful conditions, like physical stress or drought. The only naturally occurring auxin in plants is called Indole-3-acetic acid, which is a fun little molecule with a lot of functional groups, but it has a fascinatingly widespread reach on several different plant biochemical pathways with a lot of downstream effects in different signaling cascades, which can kind of affect the plant as a whole in a ubiquitous cascade of different systems.

The functional basis of this molecule is used commercially for a lot of pesticides. I’m sure you’re familiar with a lot of different broadleaf herbicides that many people would use on their farms in order to control weeds in their wheat fields. Essentially, the signaling premise is telling the plants to grow themselves to death. It’s specific genetically, since it also has a lot of impacts on different transcription factors, so understanding the communication pathways in these different transport mechanisms and protein sequences is really important in how we can learn to design different crops in order to increase yield and control different field variables.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so how does auxin affect the magnitude of drought resistance? You talked about root development and some other things, but what else is it going to do to help make our plants more drought tolerant, particularly in our lower rainfall regions?

Anna Buetow: Yeah, there’s not a lot of rainfall in eastern Washington, but auxin itself in the plant cells during physical damage can help repair them. The increased hormone concentration induces this in whatever damaged cells there are–for example in wheat spikes. Different kinds of damage can affect crops including the drought. But auxin signaling also has a major effect on the transcriptional pathways, which is kind of the key in drought stress.

For example, these transcription factors are encoded to translate and transcribe the different enzymes mediating and inhibiting reactive oxygen species. Now, reactive oxygen species is essentially very dangerous for the cell and it can cause root degradation, among other things. And it’s also known to be a big role in how wheat gets infected by different, I guess, parasitic species that would kill the plant.

So, using these enzymes, you can reduce oxidative stress in the growing crop and increase membrane integrity and osmotic balance in plants, which essentially allows it to retain more water. This will increase overall yield, reduce any crop loss, and so, in short, auxin accumulation can help with water retention and maintenance of crop health in low rainfall, and especially in non-irrigating farming systems–which makes up most of eastern Washington. It’s particularly useful, especially when we’re only getting 7 to 22 inches a year, and in the last few years only 7 to 9 [inches of rainfall annually].

Drew Lyon: Yes, it has been a dry year this year, hasn’t it? So, in terms of the water retention, how does auxin signaling help in low water regions?

Anna Buetow: So, plants use two central hormone transport systems, including polar and non-polar transport. They’re very simple despite, you know, how they may be named. But polar transport is essentially hormone transportation in a specific direction towards the pair of [stomatal] cells. Now, these cells, they’re just found towards the [xylem] and they serve in water transport in storage in the plants, since they have a very thin and permeable membrane. So, water and other nutrients can be passed back and forth very easily.

This is really beneficial and it’s kind of the main one to how water is stored in the plant and it’s activated through auxin accumulation. So, increased signaling means increased water retention.

Non-polar transport works through the phloem, which is the vascular pathway moving photosynthates and hormones in the root cells. So, essentially whatever isn’t going to photosynthesize–what is underground and what is going to uptake water–this is basically how the plant is telling itself to do that.

Drew Lyon: What measures could be taken to help drought resilience in wheat supported by these hormone signaling systems?

Anna Carroll: Reducing plant stress is definitely a big one. We experience a stress due to drought or cold–auxin response factors in these stressed plants, that’s going to arrest the growth of the root. It’s going to decrease the lateral root formation and it will rapidly redirect the root away from stress. This means that the nutrients are going to be redirected and yield is going to be reduced.

The WSDA has shown the best farming practices to increase yield and to reduce plant stress are going to be your reduced till, no-till systems as well as increasing that soil organic matter. Reduced or no-till farming systems have been shown to increase overall yield by 46.8% and to increase soil moisture by 71.5%. Incorporating a reduced or no-till system is going to naturally increase the soil organic matter and that is going to increase the soil moisture.

Soil organic matter has the potential to hold up to 20 times its weight in moisture, which definitely benefits crop growth and can reduce the need for pesticides and fertilizers by creating a healthy microbiome. More methods to achieve this are going to be cover cropping with nitrogen fixers like legumes, cattle integration to increase soil organic matter, and, therefore, water retention.

Overall, drought resilience in Washington state can be boiled down to a few key factors, many of which are implemented simply through more thoughtful farming practices. The best is a no-till method, as well as increasing soil organic matter and integrating cattle. Knowledge on how this helps biochemically is a great way to innovate those new strategies as well.

Drew Lyon: Okay, so where can people go to learn more about drought resilience?

Anna Buetow: There’s a lot of great resources and I would really encourage people to go to the WSU WaSHI blog. That’s where you can find a lot of things that are especially applicable to Eastern Washington. There’s also a lot of great resources like agriculture.gov[.au] and the WSDA Drought Resilience Survey.

Drew Lyon: Okay. And we’ll try to put those links into the show notes so people can go find them, if they would like. Anything else you want to tell us about your research or your Extension work this summer?

Anna Buetow: There’s a lot of great things to see in Eastern Washington. Hopefully we get a little bit more rain.

Anna Carroll: Yeah, definitely.

Drew Lyon: Yeah. There’s a lot of variability that makes agriculture in this part of the world very interesting because we go from 7 inches of rain in the Horse Heaven Hills to 22-23 here [in] an average year.

I’m glad you had a great experience with the REEU program. I hope other students will look into it in future years. And thank you for sharing a little bit about what you learned with us today. Thanks.

Anna Buetow: Alright. Well, thank you so much for having us.

Anna Carroll: Yeah, thank you.

Drew Lyon:

Thanks for joining us and listening to the WSU Wheat Beat podcast. If you like what you hear don’t forget to subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast app. If you have questions or topics you’d like to hear on future episodes, please email me at drew.lyon — that’s lyon@wsu.edu — (drew.lyon@wsu.edu). You can find us online at smallgrains.wsu.edu and on Facebook and Twitter [X] @WSUSmallGrains. The WSU Wheat Beat podcast is a production of CAHNRS Communications and the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

I’m Drew Lyon, we’ll see you next time.


The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed by guests of this podcast are their own and does not imply Washington State University’s endorsement.