Q&A With John Boyer

Why it's critical to research crops that can tolerate less water

National Academy of Sciences member John Boyer has begun his appointment at the University of Missouri College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources as a Distinguished Research Professor. He works in both the Division of Plant Sciences and the internationally recognized Interdisciplinary Plant Group (IPG). The appointment will allow Boyer to spend two months a year at Mizzou to engage in research and educational activities.

Boyer will research how corn responds to drought and participate in educational activities. Boyer is a plant physiologist internationally known for his research on how water, or lack thereof, affects growth, photosynthesis and reproduction in plants.

Boyer retired in 2005 from the University of Delaware, where he discovered the chemistry of how algae, a close relative to land plants, deal with limited water. This research corresponds with that being done at CAFNR and the IPG, which has nearly 60 researchers across MU’s schools and colleges.

During the rest of the year, Boyer and his wife, Jean, will manage the family farm in Maryland.

Question and Answer

Why is it critical now to research how water deficits impact crops?

DroughtWater is now the most limiting resource on many farms, and irrigation is expensive and often not readily available. Consequently, we need to deal with dryland production in crops that breeders have improved in yield but without being able to optimize for water use, generally for financial reasons. The challenges of increasing population make this effort imperative.

What is the biggest research challenge you are facing in making crops produce more with less water?

There are hundreds of scientists working on minimizing water use, and large seed companies are increasingly realizing that drought tolerance sells. But the biggest challenge is understanding the mechanisms controlling water use. Despite the deceptive simplicity of drought, everything in the plant responds, and identifying the really important controlling events is a great challenge. Understanding will come only if experimental conditions can be reproduced faithfully, which is a hallmark of the scientific method

Why is a collaborative approach so important to create the next generation of discoveries in plant research?

Because of the developments in biochemistry and molecular biology, there are new and exciting opportunities to improve water use in our crops. But the methods of measuring water status and determining how the plant responds draw on different expertise, and collaboration is the only answer for putting this together.

Does MU possess any special qualities that can make it a leader in water deficit research?

MU has renowned faculty and students in the agricultural sciences, so that I can walk down the hall and learn new ideas and methods. Moreover, the medical school is here, and we have used medical methods in our work (IV feeding of plants and imaging their sugar levels). This range of expertise benefits our work immensely and is one of the big attractions of MU. There are very few universities with this range on the same campus.

GrainBoyer earned his Ph.D. in plant physiology from Duke University in 1964. He was a faculty member in the Departments of Botany and Agronomy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, from 1966-1984, where he also held an appointment with the USDA-ARS from 1978-1984. He then joined the Department of Soil and Plant Sciences and Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics at Texas A&M University, where he served from 1984-1987. He served as the DuPont Professor of Marine Plant Biochemistry/Biophysics, College of Marine Studies and College of Agriculture, University of Delaware, beginning in 1987. In 1998 he was appointed as the director of the Marine Biology/Biochemistry Program, College of Marine Studies, University of Delaware.

He is a former president of the American Society of Plant Biologists and received that group’s Charles Reid Barnes Lifetime Membership Award for outstanding contributions to the field in 2007. He is a fellow of the American Society of Plant Biologists, the Crop Science Society of America, the American Society of Agronomy and the Japan Crop Science Society, among others. He is a distinguished scholar and teacher, and has made seminal contributions to the understanding of the effects of water on the physiology of land and marine plants. He has published close to 150 articles and books and holds one patent.