Time tunnel tests climate change crops
Scientists at the CSIRO are investigating how different wheat traits perform under projected climate conditions using tunnel houses specially designed to mimic the environment of 2050. (4:34)
12 September 2011 | Updated 25 November 2011
Glen Paul: G'day, and welcome to CSIROvod. I’m Glen Paul. Wheat is Australia’s most valuable grain crop, worth over $5 billion to the country annually. But what’s going to happen to that wheat under climate change? Will it just wither and die as temperatures increase, and there’s more droughts and increased levels of CO2.
Well, I’ve come to Perth in Western Australia to find out, because it's here at the CSIRO Laboratories that they’re creating a world of tomorrow – a world to replicate the environment of the year 2050, to see if the wheat will be able to survive in those conditions.
Creating such an environment means considering many variables, which the CSIRO team had to build into these specially designed tunnel houses from the ground up.
Sam Henty: The three factors we’re saying climate change will affect is an increased temperature, which we replicate with a fan that pulls air though the tunnels at different speeds, so the slower the air movement through the tunnel, the increased temperature. Temperature is also increased from the sun, and it’s able to penetrate our tunnels via a plastic that is called F-CLEAN that has been imported from Japan, which basically only cuts out 1% of light, and allows UV through, so it’s basically like a flexible glass.
The second factor is increased carbon dioxide, and the way we regulate this is by injecting carbon dioxide into the tunnels based on our sensors and a solenoid system. CO2 is drawn from our vessels – storage vessels over here [demonstrating] – and we aim to keep the carbon dioxide concentration in the tunnels at double what we’re breathing at the moment, which is about 700 parts per million.
The third factor is drought, and the way that we regulate that is we have an irrigation system which we can isolate different parts of the tunnel and restrict the water accordingly. Drought is obviously the most obvious affect, and you can see in the tunnel the plots that have been affected by drought at the moment are yellowing [demonstrating]. The reason we're doing this research is for 50 years time, when potentially climate change could reach these levels, we need to be ready and have plants that will be able to cope with this situation to feed the world, and feed you.
Glen Paul: But to develop types of wheat that might be able to stand up to climate change you also have to know what’s going on beneath the soil, which can be difficult without digging the plant up to look at its roots.
Dr Palta-Paz: To overcome the problem we developed this system of root boxes in which we grow the plants here and allow us to visualise and to quantify in a daily basis what happen when you grow the roots when exposed to the different scenarios of climate change. This plant we’re planting just ten days ago, we can see the growth of the seminal roots [demonstrating].
Glen Paul: The soil used in the root boxes comes from where the wheat is going to be grown, and has to be packed to the same density to accurately replicate how it might grow in the field. As the roots grow photographs can be taken and their growth marked out.
Dr Palta-Paz: This is for two different genotypes of wheat growing under the same conditions. We can see here that there is more roots, more branches of the roots, compared with this [demonstrating]. They were planted on the same day in the same conditions, so this is the same [demonstrating] – we can see big difference in the root systems. And this is what we're interested to know, how the different genotypes respond to the climate change in relation to their root growth.
Glen Paul: The task now for CSIRO is to bring all this information together.
Dr Palta-Paz: We need this information so we can pass this to breeders to produce new cultivars of wheat that are more adapted to the conditions of climate change in the year 2050.
Glen Paul: Climate change is real, and it is happening, and if we’re to avoid a food crisis into the future it’ll be because of scientists such as Jairo. If you’d like to find out more about the research visit us online at www.csiro.au.