BERKELEY, Calif., Sept. 30, 2015 - Epigenetics – the study of trait variations caused by environmental factors that switch genes on and off - will be the focus of a $12.3 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy/Genomic Science Program’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research. The five- year project will be led by scientists from UC Berkeley, who will investigate the mechanisms that allow plants, like sorghum, to survive in drought conditions, such as the historic drought now covering California.

Drought, and climate change in general, is an increasing concern for those seeking to grow food as well as renewable energy. Knowledge gained from the research project is expected to allow better predictions of how crops are affected by climate change and to lead to approaches that improve growth and production of crops under water-limiting conditions in commercial fields and on marginal lands.

A variety of plant traits in sorghum, a relative of corn, will be observed and samples taken in order to investigate the plant’s responses to drought at the molecular level.

“Historically, the genetic manipulation of crops, which has been critical to increasing agricultural productivity, has concentrated on altering the plant’s genetic sequence, encoded in its DNA,” says Peggy Lemaux, cooperative extension specialist at UC Berkeley’s Department of Plant and Microbial Biology. “However, recent studies have shown that environmental stresses – in our case drought – can lead to epigenetic changes in a plant’s genetic information. Because epigenetic changes occur without altering the underlying DNA sequence, they allow plants to respond to a changing environment more quickly.”


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