Washington University part of group awarded $20 million for climate variability research

Engineering, medicine, occupational therapy team to study climate change

In visible light, a leaf from a plant living in normal weather conditions (above left) and one from a plant suffering from drought (above right) look very similar. But a scanner for infrared radiation (bottom) reveals significant differences that may help scientists take corrective action sooner.
(Credit: Mikhail Berezin)

As part of a multi-institutional $20 million effort to help Missouri adapt to climate variability, researchers at Washington University in St. Louis will conduct several studies, including one that uses medical imaging on plants to see what’s broken or about to break inside.

The goal: to find early indicators of illness and stress before drought and other ecological foes cause too much damage.

“When plants turn brown and wither, we know they’re suffering from drought, but at that point it’s too late to help,” said Mikhail Berezin, PhD, assistant professor of radiology at the School of Medicine. “We want to find ways to look beneath the surface and detect early indicators of stress in ecosystems, allowing us to take appropriate corrective action, such as adjusting the use of water resources.”

Scientists in engineering will analyze time-lapse photographs of ecosystems to detect shifts in the timing of flowering and other aspects of plants’ life cycles. The data will help researchers create models that predict future shifts and help society prepare for the potential agricultural, economic and social implications of the changes.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) is providing $20 million each to five states — Kentucky, Maine, Missouri, North Dakota and South Dakota — and the U.S. Virgin Islands under its Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), a program initiated by the U.S. Congress to support fundamental research, education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and workforce development in areas relevant to the economy.

The Missouri grant, “The Missouri Transect: Climate, Plants and Community,” is headed by John C. Walker, PhD, at the University of Missouri-Columbia, and includes 33 researchers from all four University of Missouri System campuses (the University of Missouri in Columbia, Kansas City and St. Louis, and Missouri University of Science and Technology); Saint Louis University; the Donald Danforth Plant Sciences Center; Lincoln University; the St. Louis Science Center; and Washington University.

The researchers are experts in plant sciences, atmospheric and environmental sciences, bioinformatics, engineering, social sciences and science outreach and education. The project is made up of four interdisciplinary teams in the areas of climate, plant biology, community resilience and education/outreach.

The other Washington University researchers are David Gray, PhD, professor of occupational therapy at the School of Medicine, Robert Pless, PhD, professor of computer science, and Kilian Weinberger, PhD, associate professor of computer science, both in the School of Engineering & Applied Science.

These images show the types of changes in the growth cycles of plants that Pless and his team can see from public webcams. (Credit: Robert Pless)

Pless’ role is to analyze long-term, time-lapse images of plants, either in the lab or from public webcams, to estimate when plants flower, how much they grow and how long their growing seasons are. Weinberger will analyze data and build predictive models.

Gray studies employment issues faced by young people with spinal cord injuries. He will work with vocational rehabilitation specialists, scientific mentors and the NSF to provide pathways to careers in science for these young people. Possible fields include informatics, biological sciences and other areas in which fine-motor coordination and movement of legs are less important than understanding science.

Studies of plant responses to drought will be coupled with seasonal-range climate forecasts, computational analysis and modeling of environmental sensing data to improve agricultural resilience to the weather and climate-induced stressors that affect water availability, soil moisture and crop yields. The new knowledge about adaptation and resilience will be translated into educational tools to inform Missourians about climate variability and its predicted impact on agriculture and natural resources.

The Missouri grant also will support workforce development in three areas: undergraduate and graduate education; bioinformatics training for women, minorities and people with disabilities; and job training.

“The Missouri Transect provides groundbreaking biotechnology tools for improving crop climate resilience and educating a workforce that understands the effects of climate change on plant adaptation,” said Kelvin Chu, program director at the NSF.

North Dakota and South Dakota also are studying the sustainability of crop yields for agricultural production. Maine and the U.S. Virgin Islands are focusing on coastal ecological challenges, and Kentucky and North Dakota are looking at energy and sustainable materials with a focus on the economic drivers and end-users specific to each state.

For a news release from NSF about the grant, follow this link.

The School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 82 tenured/tenure-track and 40 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, 700 graduate students and more than 23,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.

Washington University School of Medicine’s 2,100 employed and volunteer faculty physicians also are the medical staff of Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals. The School of Medicine is one of the leading medical research, teaching and patient-care institutions in the nation, currently ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. Through its affiliations with Barnes-Jewish and St. Louis Children’s hospitals, the School of Medicine is linked to BJC HealthCare.