California produces two-thirds of the fresh fruits and vegetables consumed in the U.S. As the worst drought in the state’s history continues, it is turning into a testing ground for how the world will cope with the clash of growing populations, dwindling water resources and a changing climate.
“California has all of these water-intensive crops growing in a drought-stricken area where the groundwater is also drying up,” says Roger Deal, a geneticist at Emory University who researches the ways plants build and adapt their bodies. “At the same time, the climate is changing. Obviously, something has got to give.”
Deal is among a consortium of scientists, funded by the National Science Foundation’s Plant Genome Research program, who are doing collaborative studies on how plants cope with weather extremes.
“If you look across a range of different plant species they have very different levels of tolerance to drought,” Deal says. “There is clearly something genetic and physiological about those differences. We’re trying to understand the mechanisms at play for how plants deal with the stresses of weather extremes, and how they succeed or don’t succeed.”