Rashmi Sasidharan appointed Professor of Plant Stress Resilience
Characterising fundamental mechanisms aiding plant survival
Utrecht University has appointed biologist Rashmi Sasidharan as Professor of Plant Stress Resilience. Together with her research group, Sasidharan aims to pinpoint the mechanisms that help plants cope with stressful environments. This knowledge will pave the way toward more climate-resilient crops.
While access to a reliable food supply is taken for granted in most Western societies, the future poses significant challenges for food security. Producing enough food to feed a rapidly expanding human population will be a big challenge, as harvests get increasingly decimated by erratic weather events related to climate change.
One strategy to combat this is generating crop varieties that can cope with temperature and precipitation extremes. This requires a deeper understanding of mechanisms that aid plant survival in unfavourable environments, which will be the primary goal of Sasidharan’s Plant Stress Resilience group.
The biology of plant stress resilience
“Our research mission is to understand how plants perceive, respond to, and tolerate challenging abiotic environments,” says Sasidharan. “Using a combination of approaches from phenomics to molecular biology, we study adaptive mechanisms from the whole plant to the molecular level. The ultimate goal is to identify key traits and molecular mechanisms that promote plant survival.”
Modern crops lack a variety of beneficial traits that allow them to adapt to a changing environment. In their wild ancestors, these traits often still occur.
Wild ancestral species
Sasidharan’s study systems include model plant species, but also wild plants. Historically, most crop breeding programs focused on economically relevant traits such as yield, flavour, or appearance. This resulted in the loss of other valuable attributes such as stress resilience. However, wild ancestral species from which modern-day crops descended are a valuable reservoir of stress adaptive traits. Exploring resilience mechanisms in such species is therefore an approach Sasidharan endorses.
Coping with multiple stress combinations
Sasidharan’s group is also interested in understanding how plants cope with not just single stresses, but multiple stress combinations. Due to climate change, combinations or successions of stressful events have become commonplace.
A warmer planet means that extreme weather will occur more frequently and is less predictable. This unpredictability means we ideally need crops that are resilient to multiple stresses.
Sasidharan: “For instance, you can have dry periods followed by flooding or high temperatures combined with flooding or drought. A warmer planet means that extreme weather will occur more frequently and is less predictable. This unpredictability means we ideally need crops that are resilient to multiple stresses.”
Broad life sciences arena
Sasidharan foresees tremendous opportunities in being embedded at Utrecht University with its broad life sciences arena. “This way we can link our fundamental plant research with other life science experts, and even social sciences”, says Sasidharan.
We can link our fundamental plant research with other life science experts, and even social sciences.
The vital knowledge required to address the challenge of developing a sustainable, climate-resilient food system will require integrated multi-disciplinary approaches. “Unique platforms at Utrecht University, such as Future Food Utrecht, already offer the perfect opportunity to realise this. The Future Food platform has allowed me to establish several unique collaborations, and I look forward to consolidating this further in my new research group.”