Drought is a pervasive factor that structures grasslands worldwide. Yet little is known about the genetic basis of drought tolerance, how drought-tolerance has evolved, how it is distributed geographically, and what its potential role is in determining future grassland productivity. In this research, the investigators will determine physiological drought tolerance and associated anatomical and physiological traits for 400 species of grass distributed across eight major evolutionary groups and broad geographic and environmental ranges. To better understand the genetics of grasses, gene expression will be examined as well as root and leaf anatomy, morphology, and physiology. With new sequence data complementing current efforts, the phylogenetic relationships among the 400 species and their environmental niche spaces will be determined. The research will also parameterize models of global productivity in the context of drought, coupling data on drought tolerance with gas exchange and environmental data, which will be critical in modeling responses of vegetation to future climate change.
Understanding the different dimensions of drought tolerance and photosynthesis will contribute broadly to our understanding of grasslands in a way that could impact everything from crop selection to predictions of future global function. Additionally, this project will recruit underrepresented individuals at the graduate and post-doctoral level, will contribute to multiple public datasets, and will develop educational materials such as a temporary exhibit on the phylogeny of grasses and grass roots to the new Flint Hills Discovery Center in Manhattan, KS.