CWU News

CWU Biology Professor Awarded $285,000 to Study Environmental Effects on Food Crops

How will climate change affect the production of essential food crops? Food security depends on producing enough crops despite a rapidly growing population and increasingly variable climate.

Jennifer Dechaine-Berkas, a Central Washington University biological sciences professor, recently received a $285,000, five-year grant to study how a major plant oil crop, sunflower, resists drought and other environmental stresses. While both agricultural crops and wild plants are subjected to the same stresses, wild plants have evolved to better withstand poor conditions; many crops are less resilient.

Future crop production may be be increasingly challenged by environmental stresses, such as drought, and saltier, lower nutrient soils. Drought was a problem for farmers in Washington State and other parts of the country this year, and this issue is expected to worsen as the climate changes.

"Environmental stress affects plants like any other organism; a person's growth and productively suffer without proper nutrition, and so do our crops," Dechaine-Berkas noted. "We hope that our findings help farmers continue to produce food but using fewer resources.”

“Sunflower is particularly suitable for this work, because its oil production is limited by environmental stress. However, related wild sunflowers thrive in extremely stressful environments like deserts,” she explained. “Working out the complex gene networks underlying plant response to stress can help us develop productive food systems that use fewer resources.” 

The grant also provides funding for CWU biology students to travel to University of Georgia for a Research Leadership Internship. Students will experience cutting-edge research techniques and learn about the academic and social aspects of pursuing doctoral graduate research.

The project, “Evolutionary Genomics of Abiotic Stress Resistance in Wild and Cultivated Sunflowers,” is part of a $4.1 million National Science Foundation Plant Genome Research Grant, led by the University of Georgia, and shared by five universities and the United States Department of Agriculture. [Abiotic refers to non-living factors, such as weather, that affect plants and animals and their ecosystems.]

Media Contact: Valerie Chapman-Stockwell, Public Affairs, 509-963-1518,
June 14, 2016