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Fighting World Hunger: MU Multidisciplinary Team Receives $4 Million NSF Grant to Advance Crop Research

Expertise, resources found at Mizzou allow critical research to investigate drought resistance in corn that could help sustain projected 9 billion global population

March 10th, 2016

Story Contact: Jeff Sossamon, 573-882-3346,

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Developing drought-tolerant corn varieties that make efficient use of available water is vital to sustain the estimated 9 billion global population by 2050. For the past several decades, University of Missouri researchers have been working to solve this world hunger problem and have made significant strides. Now, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded MU a $4.2 million grant to fund a four-year project to study how corn maintains root growth in drought conditions.

The “Physiological Genomics of Maize Nodal Root Growth under Drought” project, which will be led by a team of researchers from the MU Interdisciplinary Plant Group, received funding from the NSF’s Plant Genome Research Program. As part of the project, students and postdoctoral associates will learn how to be more competitive in the job market, and minority students will be trained to conduct research through a diversity component of the grant. An MU School of Journalism outreach component will help to communicate results of the project to the public.

“Corn takes up most of its water through a particular set of roots called the nodal roots,” said Robert E. Sharp, professor of plant sciences, director of the MU Interdisciplinary Plant Group and principal investigator of the project. “Under drought, the nodal roots must grow through dry soil to reach available water. However, virtually nothing is known about the mechanisms that allow nodal roots to achieve this essential feat. Our work will build upon years of interdisciplinary research here at Mizzou, both in the lab and in the field and thus, will contribute to the essential goals of increased food security and stability for the world.”

In Missouri, it can be difficult to control the conditions needed to simulate drought and obtain good data. The university has a rare resource that allows scientists to simulate drought. Five years ago, co-investigator Felix Fritschi, Sharp, and their colleagues received a $1.5 million Missouri Life Sciences Research Board grant to build drought simulators on an experimental field. The simulators are mobile greenhouses measuring 50 feet by 100 feet that move over plants when it is raining and move away from plants when it is sunny (see video).

“The University of Missouri has the strengths of our scientists, undergraduate and graduate students, the facilities and equipment as well as the communications teams to attract multi-million dollar federal funding for this type of project,” Interim Chancellor Hank Foley said. “In this case, all the researchers involved are here at Mizzou and will contribute their expertise to the goal of sustaining future global population growth. This ‘one stop shop’ is highly attractive to federal funders seeking to expend their research dollars wisely. In addition, every dollar invested at Mizzou adds nearly $60 to the Missouri economy and for every $1 million Mizzou attracts in federal funding, 30 local jobs are supported. Through this project, MU will pump more than $251 million into the state of Missouri’s economy and will support more than 120 jobs.”

The project also will disseminate research findings and provide information to the general public through various communication, technical training and outreach activities. These activities include science communication workshops involving MU School of Journalism students and hands-on training workshops where journalists shadow scientists and researchers to better understand the research involved. Students will then work through print and broadcast media to communicate the group’s work to the public.

In addition to the training of students and postdoctoral associates, the project will provide summer research training internships for undergraduate students from Fort Valley State University, a historically African-American university located in Fort Valley, Georgia.

“This significant funding from the NSF highlights exemplifies the excellence of CAFNR and the Interdisciplinary Plant Group and the commitment to solving hunger and providing the resources needed to sustain world growth,” said Thomas L. Payne, dean of the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources. “This collaborative, diverse team of scientists and students showcase the College’s commitment to excellence in teaching, extension and outreach. We’re proud to be leading the effort and look forward to results that will benefit the world.”

The interdisciplinary team involved with the research includes members from various MU colleges and schools. The co-primary investigators from the Interdisciplinary Plant Group include David M. Braun, an associate professor in the Division of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Science; Felix B. Fritschi, an associate professor in the Division of Plant Sciences in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources; Trupti Joshi, an assistant research professor and director of translational bioinformatics in the Department of Molecular Microbiology and Immunology in the School of Medicine; Scott C. Peck, an associate professor in the Division of Biochemistry in the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources and an investigator in the Bond Life Sciences Center; Jonathan T. Stemmle, an associate professor of strategic communication at the School of Journalism; and Melvin J. Oliver, an adjunct professor in the Division of Plant Sciences and a supervisory research geneticist with the USDA Agricultural Research Service.


Editor’s Note: For video of the drought simulator, please visit:


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