CABNR research seeks to expand, revolutionize Nevada agriculture

In a state that receives only 9 inches of annual rainfall, Biochemist John Cushman is pioneering research to understand how plants survive in arid, inhospitable regions. Through this understanding, Cushman seeks to expand the productivity of existing crops as well as expand agriculture into regions that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to cultivate.

"Much of the total land mass of the world lies in arid or semi-arid regions," Cushman said. "One of the things we're really interested in is increasing yield stability in agriculture and expanding acreage in arid regions."

One step in the research process is analyzing plants that already exist in harsh climates. According to the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, 35 percent of the world's surface is classified as arid or semi-arid. In response, native plants have adapted to environmental factors such as salt, heat, drought and cold through specific biological functions in order to retain nutrients and moisture. According to Cushman, pinpointing these functions and engineering new crops with the desired traits would increase plant resilience to stress and boost productivity.

"Plants are already subjected to a variety of environmental insults, impacting the overall yield stability," Cushman said. "Every time a plant incurs stress, the productivity of the crop decreases. If you can create resilience in a crop you can reduce the loss of agricultural product."

One such crop being tested is camelina, a hardy plant that can be used for livestock feed or processed to be used as a biofuel. Cushman said camelina is a prime candidate for Nevada's environment, with a short growth period, minimal water requirements and low nutritional demands. Cushman's research with camelina currently involves creating more resilient strains of the crop, allowing camelina to be grown throughout more regions in Nevada. Cushman also stressed how the global need for alternative energy sources could have an economic impact on Nevada if crops such as Camelina were adopted into the agricultural sector.

"We're faced with a crisis," said Cushman. "We are estimated to reach peak oil production in 2012 to 2015 and will have to pursue fuel alternatives. Crops like camelina not only have implications for Nevada, but the global economy as well."

To date, the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that renewable energy sources account for little more than 8 percent of energy consumption in the country. However, faced with growing uncertainties towards energy sustainability, biofuels like those researched by Cushman may revolutionize the energy market while expanding agriculture into areas once thought impossible.