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Lucia Strader
Lucia Strader with her lab team's crop of Arabidopsis thaliana at different stages of maturation. Photo by Chris Hildreth

What Plants Can Tell Us About Climate Change

Duke biologist Lucia Strader unites scientists concerned about the future of agriculture

When Duke molecular plant biologist Lucia Strader gathered regional academic, commercial and non-profit scientists on a Zoom call in summer 2022, her mission for the group was to seek funds to launch a climate-smart agriculture corridor in central North Carolina.

The National Science Foundation grant that Strader hoped for didn’t pan out, but what had started as a loose association of like-minded scientists sharing ideas on a video call began to coalesce into a tight social group united in a common cause – to use plants to understand climate change.

“People were talking, and they didn't know that the other person had a missing piece of their puzzle,” Strader says. “Just by having conversations and creating spaces for people to be able to communicate, new things are happening in North Carolina that weren't happening prior to that.”

Another new thing happening in North Carolina is saltwater intrusion. Rising seas send salt water inland, killing plants and degrading groundwater quality. Warmer nighttime temperatures throw off pollination cycles, which are adapted to specific climate conditions. As the problem worsens, small farmers in Eastern North Carolina will be particularly affected, Strader says. These climate challenges can’t be resolved by just one researcher, or just one institution. So Strader set out to build a network of scientists that could make a difference.

“A lot of people are looking at climate change and plant biology as big global changes,” says Strader. “We're really thinking about it from the cellular level.”

– Lucia Strader

In late 2021, she and her colleagues at Duke realized over lunch that many of them were already working on plant resilience and climate change. Within months, the idea had expanded outside of Duke. Strader approached fellow scientists at North Carolina State University, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She brought in businesses like the North Carolina Biotechnology Center and Syngenta, and nonprofits such as RTI International. Each institution was a leader in a different sphere. U.N.C. had its Institute for Convergent Science. N.C. A&T had secured a sizable grant for workforce development. N.C. State boasted its Plant Sciences Initiative.

Strader was still new to North Carolina. She didn’t think in terms of rivalries, but simply approached researchers from each institution and asked to collaborate. The new Climate Plant Innovation Network had its first meeting in May 2022 – on that previously mentioned Zoom call. By its second meetup the following May, CPIN was a tighter unit, with some members working together on a grant-seeking team.

Arabidopsis siliques, at right, are miniature seed pods. The silique above is viewed under an electron microscope.

Strader’s education and research taught her to handle the science, but she feels her upbringing and distinct route to academia taught her to build a path of collaboration where none existed before.

“I'm very good at being able to work with people with conflicting opinions from one another and figuring out how to get us all to get along,” Strader says. “I think that's just because of my childhood. I wouldn't say it's because of any special skill so much as just survival.”

Strader grew up  the tiny unincorporated community of Dry Creek, Louisiana, where she says she navigated a family filled with difficult personality types. As she puts it, no one in her family has ever been wrong. Young Strader chose to spend  most of her time outdoors and in the woods. By seventh grade, she was winning science fair awards in the plant biology division.

“I was heavily involved in 4-H as a child,” Strader says. “I had the opportunity to go to 4-H camp at LSU when I was in middle school.”

It is two and a half hours by car from Dry Creek to Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge – comparatively, a metropolis. There, young Strader was drawn to a camp workshop she doubts other kids found as fascinating: Breeding soybeans to make them better in biodiesel. “I decided that's what I wanted to do – think about plants and how to make them more useful for the world around us,” she says.

Strader was the first in her family to finish high school. She landed a competitive L.S.U. scholarship, which included an on-campus job. The other entering freshmen in the program were largely private school kids from New Orleans. They had contacted faculty ahead of time, while she had simply written “I like plants” in her application. Later, when Strader met her undergraduate mentor, he asked what she wanted to do.

“I was like, ‘Well, I like plants and I like science, so science and plants,’” she recalls. “He was like, ‘Oh, you want to get your Ph.D.?’ And I said, ‘What's a Ph.D.?’ I really didn't know anything.

“Without that program,” Strader continues, “I probably would not have been set in the trajectory that I've been on.”

Next came  a doctorate from Washington State University. Then, a faculty position at Washington University in St. Louis. In 2020, Duke recruited Strader.

“When someone as good as Lucia is potentially moving into the area, everybody's all atwitter about it. She’s really, really at the top of her game,” recalls Greg Copenhaver, a geneticist whose roles at U.N.C. Chapel Hill include the chancellor's eminent professor in convergent science and associate dean for research innovation. “She studies how hormones affect plant growth, and the shape that plants take as they develop. She works on one [hormone] called auxin, and she is probably among the two or three best world-renowned scientists in that area.”

“A lot of people are looking at climate change and plant biology as big global changes,” says Strader. “We're really thinking about it from the cellular level.”

Using Arabidopsis, a common research plant with a simple genome, her lab focuses on how auxin  regulates every aspect of plant growth. In 1880, Strader notes, Charles Darwin wrote that plants grow at different rates at different times of day and temperatures in his “The Power of Movement in Plants.” Now, thanks to climate change, the temperature patterns plants use to time their growth and development have gone haywire.

“We've actually uncovered the [cellular] mechanisms being used at these different temperatures during the day to tie into growth output,” says Strader.

In molecular biology, transcription factors are proteins that activate genes. A specific set of transcription factors controls response to the auxin hormone and, therefore, growth. Strader compares transcription factors to the simple oil and vinegar emulsion of salad dressing. If the oil and vinegar do not emulsify, your dressing will separate. This process, called phase separation, can also happen in transcription factors. At lower temperatures, they separate. When it’s warm, they’re out doing their job. It’s a natural fluctuation that can tie temperature to growth rate.

“I think of it as probably some of the most primitive ways cells have organized themselves,” says fungus expert Amy Gladfelter, a professor of cell biology in the Duke School of Medicine and of biomedical engineering.

Proteins are basically polymers, Gladfelter and Strader note. It’s an old idea, although it fell out of fashion for decades. In the meantime, physical chemists worked out the mechanics of phase separation in polymers. About 14 years ago, cell biologists revisited the emulsion idea.

“Very few people are thinking about it in terms of climate change,” Gladfelter says. Yet Strader has connected with her colleagues at Duke to do exactly that. Strader’s work gives Gladfelter hope, both that the biosphere can adapt and that responses can be engineered.

“Nighttime temperatures are not dropping the way they used to be, at least in this region. This is like a major mismatch between every plant out there and the environment that they're in,” Strader says. “We're trying to understand that, not just from the auxin perspective, but from a more global perspective as well.”

“[For] a lot of people who want to invest in collective action, who want to inspire change, and bring people together, it's very easy to get stuck in the idea space,” says Amanda Rose, an innovation adviser with RTI. “Lucia is one of those people that can actually move it into getting things done.”

Flexibility is key with so many experts from different institutions in the same room. Strader swears by the concept of epistemic humility – the willingness to identify and admit what you don’t know or don’t understand yet. She doesn’t have to know all the answers. And as CPIN moves forward, she doesn’t have to always drive the conversation.

Strader is the party starter, as a friend at N.C. State called her, but not the life of the party. Strader the person isn’t sure how to feel about that. Strader the network-building plant biologist knows it’s a strength.

“It's going to be important [in solving big problems] to get outside of your own bubble,” she says.