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Scientists Seek to Relieve Crops of Drought Stress

By Ben Hardin
August 19, 1997

Crop plants, often made less productive by extreme temperatures and drought, may get help from hearty, wild plants. Scientists with the Agricultural Research Service in Lubbock, Texas, isolated genes from a South African grass and a native moss that help these plants survive severe droughts.

The researchers are testing the genes’ potential to improve crop survival and productivity. They’ve determined the exact order of the genes’ DNA building blocks to lay the groundwork for transforming crop plants. Two sequenced genes have been transferred into drought- sensitive test plants to determine their ability to promote recovery from water stress. Twenty more genes await testing.

This project is among several being conducted by an ARS research team that will eventually be part of the agency’s new Plant Stress and Water Conservation Laboratory. Groundbreaking ceremonies take place tomorrow, Aug. 20, for construction of a 64,000- square-foot ARS lab facility located on the Texas Tech University campus in Lubbock. Lubbock, on the High Plains of Texas, is an ideal environment to study effects of drought. The area receives only about 18 inches of precipitation annually, and there are frequently long periods of gusty winds.

The drought-resistant moss and grass withstand even harsher conditions. Both can dry out completely but turn green and resume photosynthesis after receiving water. Most plants, once dry, won’t turn green again. If the experiments succeed, the first crop species to receive the genes will be cotton--the region’s most economically important crop--followed by all other major crop species.

Lubbock scientists earlier produced what is now the major workable system for inserting genes from different organisms into cotton. The system was proven with development of herbicide-resistant cotton--the first publicly released transgenic germplasm. More information about ARS’ Lubbock research can be seen on the World Wide Web at:

Scientific contact: Melvin J. Oliver, USDA-ARS Cropping Systems Research Laboratory, Lubbock, Tex., phone (806) 746-5353, fax (806) 744-4402, e-mail