Finding ways to use natural plant adaptations to feed the world

Robert VanBuren, an assistant professor in the MSU Department of Horticulture, explores how the mechanisms and characteristics that help plants be resilient to drought could lead to new advances in agriculture.

Robert VanBuren

The demand for agricultural crops is expected to more than double by 2050 and the world population to top 9 billion people. Doubling crop production to feed the world comes with significant challenges, including changes in climate and weather.

Robert VanBuren is an assistant professor in the Department of Horticulture and the Plant Resilience Institute at MSU. He explores how the mechanisms and characteristics that help plants be resilient to drought could lead to new advances in agriculture.

“Drought is the most pervasive issue we face in agriculture today, and it causes massive losses in crop yield and quality throughout the world,” said VanBuren. “Drought events are increasing in severity and frequency and the need to combat drought is urgent.”

His research focuses on ways to make global agriculture more sustainable by producing higher yield crops that need less water and have increased resistance to environmental stresses including drought, high temperatures, flooding, disease and insect pests.

He is studying the natural evolution of certain plants to better adapt to arid conditions and how these so-called “resurrection plants” can tolerate severe water loss. VanBuren explains that these are a small group of plants that can withstand near complete drying and enter a dormant state for months or years until the return of water.

When rains return, they fill their cells with water, fix any damage, and are back to normal photosynthesis and growth within a few days. Resurrection plants are understudied, according to VanBuren, “but they may be useful for engineering improved drought tolerance into crop plants. Other plants (such as cacti, pineapple and orchids) store carbon dioxide for photosynthesis at night to reduce water loss. These plants use up to 80 percent less water than plants with a typical photosynthesis process. My lab is using these plants as models to unravel the genetic basis for these traits. “There is a pressing need to identify genetic sources of drought tolerance and develop new cultivated plants that produce well in current and projected future climates,” said VanBuren. “Crop improvement is the cornerstone of global food security.”

Q&A: Robert VanBuren

Title: Assistant professor, MSU Department of Horticulture, and researcher with the MSU Plant Resilience Institute

Joined MSU: 2016

Education: B.S. in biotechnology, Rochester Institute of Technology, 2010; Ph.D. in plant biology, University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, 2014

Hometown: Averill Park, New York (about 20 minutes outside of Albany)

Influential or inspiring person: My scientific hero is Dr. Barbara McClintock, a maize geneticist who won the Nobel Prize in 1983 for her discovery that genes can transpose around the genome. She is one of the only plant biologists to win the Nobel Prize and she’s the only women to receive an unshared Nobel Prize in Medicine and Physiology. She was a true pioneer, persevering in a discipline and academic system that was openly hostile to women.

On a Saturday afternoon, you’ll likely find me: I live a low-key life and typically spend Saturday afternoons baking, gardening, painting or playing video games. It is important to make time for hobbies to relax and recharge. Some of my best ideas have come during hikes in the woods or while crafting.

Best part of my job is: Mentoring students is probably the most important part of my job and also the most rewarding. We have fantastic plant science graduate students and they make the daunting task of starting a lab much easier.

If I weren’t a researcher I’d be: I am passionate about cooking and baking, and I would love to open a small bakery. I would probably make malasada, a Portuguese filled donut that is popular in the northeast and Hawaii, but difficult to get in the Midwest.

This article was published in Futures, a magazine produced twice per year by Michigan State University AgBioResearch. To view past issues of Futures, visit For more information, email Holly Whetstone, editor, at or call 517-355-0123.

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