Carl Bernacchi ’95 M.S. ’97 and his team at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign are helping crops adapt to extreme conditions.




A groundbreaking research team
adapts crops to face the extreme
conditions wrought by climate change.

By Thomas Bruch
All photos courtesy of Carl Bernacchi

During the agricultural growing season, Carl Bernacchi ’95 M.S. ’97 and his team of researchers toggle between multiple field-based research projects at his plant biology laboratory.

The growing season is all about conducting experiments in the field: making as many measurements on the crops in the lab’s research plots and harvesting as much data as possible. Some experiments require Bernacchi and his team to start conducting research before daybreak, going leaf-by-leaf, plant-by-plant, to take measurements for up to 17 hours a day.

Bernacchi analyzes the impact of climate change and rising carbon on crop species important to the Midwest. Along with working as a research scientist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), he also runs a research lab in his capacity as a plant biology professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Conducting leading research in the realm of climate science can be a daunting prospect to face. After 25 years in this work, Bernacchi still oscillates between the enormity of climate change and the hopeful breakthroughs scientists tackle every day.

“Some nights, I stay up stressing about the challenges we’re up against,” he said. “And other nights, I fall asleep peacefully knowing that there’s just a large team of dedicated, intelligent people working on this problem.”

His priority project at the university: adapting crops to grow better under extremely hot and dry conditions — the type of conditions typical of most food insecure parts of the world — and, potentially, a preview of climate conditions closer to home.

As man-made changes continue to alter the global climate, his work strives to understand better how plants respond to those changes and to develop strategies that increase food production under a less hospitable environment.

Bernacchi’s team uses an astonishing amount of advanced technology. At the SoyFACE (Soybean Free Air Concentration Enrichment) facility, they manipulate factors like temperature and humidity to put plants under more extreme conditions.

Researchers also stalk through research fields with sensors that clamp onto the leaf of a plant. Bernacchi calls this the process of finding the “ground truth.” The clamped sensor tracks the amount of water coming from each leaf.

Above the researchers on the ground, four towers loom in each corner of a 200-meter by 200-meter field. A Spidercam system, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is suspended from the cables attached to the four towers, equipped with cameras and a range of sensors. The automated Spidercam slides across the cables in the field, capturing measurements as it moves.

Bernacchi compared the Spidercam towers to the tube affixed to the mouth of a person running on a treadmill during a stress test. The sensors are measuring what comes in and what goes out of the entire field of plants, allowing researchers to examine the ecosystem’s scale compared to the data collection on the individual plants.

“We’re able to make measurements on over a million plants per day. And that’s a level of analysis that no one in the world has ever been able to do before.”

A day in the field produces terabytes of data that will take days to analyze, interpret and package to present later in scientific publications, meetings and conferences. But that’s a concern for the winter off-season. In the growing season, the next day means another marathon of data collection to further the research.

Bernacchi modestly jokes his job resembles more of a “scientific middle manager,” supervising the experiments others do. Yet his team involves a community of scientists in the shape of post-doctorates, engineers and computer programmers, all working with sophisticated technology and ample funding sources to conduct unparalleled research on crops.

“We’re a community of scientists working toward a common goal.”
– Bernacchi

His comfort with the level of resources at his disposal traces back to classes with Bradley biology professor Kelly McConnaughay. While in his master’s program, she encouraged him to push the limits of capability in a lab setting with fewer resources.

“That was probably one of the best things that I could have experienced,” Bernacchi said. “It teaches you efficiency, it teaches you creativity, it teaches you versatility without throwing money or resources at a problem.”

It’s been a precipitous rise up the plant physiologist ranks for Bernacchi, who didn’t have an agrarian upbringing in the Chicago suburbs and who studied psychology and Spanish during his undergraduate years at the university. To Bernacchi, though, his trajectory all makes sense.

The diversity of topics taught by the psychology faculty fascinated him, culminating in a course on psychology and human perception.

“That class really got into this mechanistic understanding of how we, as humans or as organisms, how we sense the environment. There was a very strong biology focus in that class, and I just loved that.”

The pursuit of better understanding physiology — how organisms work — led Bernacchi to study biology at the graduate level. Under the tutelage of faculty members like McConnaughay, his interests narrowed from all organisms to an ecological focus in plant biology.

His doctoral studies at Illinois finally steered him toward the animating force behind his career in science: photosynthesis, where carbon goes in an ecosystem and water comes out.

The opportunities for research involving photosynthesis can scale up to a global level, Bernacchi said. But it takes a command of scientific investigation to navigate and understand those scales, a process Bernacchi felt comfortable with from the multidisciplinary nature of his studies in Bradley’s psychology and biology departments.

“My studies at Bradley had a really strong focus on scientific method,” Bernacchi said. “The core of what makes good scientists is mastering the scientific method, which sounds easy, but it’s not. It’s what we get trained to do over years and years.”

By maintaining strong ties with the university’s biology department, Bernacchi has built up a pseudo-pipeline between the two institutions. At least a dozen Bradley students gained internship experience helping with field experiments in the summer. One of the technicians he hired as a student graduate, Justin McGrath ’04, joined his USDA unit three years ago.

With 50 percent of the unit hailing from Bradley, Illinois faculty started taking note of the quality of scientists produced at Bradley. The refrain Bernacchi kept hearing from colleagues was “we need more Bradley students on campus.”

“There weren’t a lot of us, but we were doing a really successful job,” Bernacchi said. “The Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology
here is really the top institute of its kind globally, and you’ve got three alumni from Bradley. That speaks volumes.”

“It’s a great community of scientists here,” McGrath said. “This unit has made some of the biggest discoveries in photosynthesis. And if there’s anything you can think of researching, they have the resources to do it.”

Thirty years ago, Bernacchi learned how rising greenhouse gas emissions would lead to rising temperatures, which would lead to increased wildfire damage and more global changes.

“Nobody wanted that to happen, but these scientists were spot on,” Bernacchi said.

Reflecting back, however, he believes articulating climate-change problems, repercussions and potential solutions to the public and policymakers wasn’t adequate for many years. McGrath added when scientific findings don’t resonate with outside stakeholders, it fuels skepticism.

Only in the last decade, according to Bernacchi, has the quality of communication met the urgent circumstances posed by the global problem. That evolution mirrors his dialogue with farmers over the course of two decades.

Bernacchi estimated he has interacted with thousands of farmers in his research role. In earlier years, he encountered significant skepticism about global change. Those conversations began to shift when farmers
observed the adverse effects in real time in their fields.

The dilemmas facing farmers are two-fold between heat and precipitation. Warming temperatures drive more variability, increasing the number of extreme weather events. Fields with lush, perfectly green
plants deteriorate into wilted rows of crops much quicker than past years.

“And it’s a lot more frequent than it used to be, and farmers are picking up on this,” Bernacchi said.

Farmers communicated to Bernacchi their increasing frustration with precipitation patterns, which he also observed in data. Twenty years ago, rain used to fall evenly every month: about three to four inches per month, or roughly occurring around once a week.

More often than not, spring seasons now bring high-intensity precipitation events that cause flooding in the fields, Bernacchi said. Farmers can’t plant in flooded or muddy fields, forcing them into difficult decisions.

Some farmers in the Midwest will wait so long to plant corn that it’s too late: they have to return the corn seed for soybeans. Even though it’s not a new phenomenon, Bernacchi noted it occurs more frequently today.

Other farmers opt to plant early to capitalize on warmer temperatures happening sooner. But all it takes is a simple reversion back to normal temperatures for a freeze to kill the crops.

“That has serious economic consequences,” Bernacchi said. “Even though there’s insurance to protect farmers, there’s still costs: time costs, fuel costs, even premium costs.

“So, when I speak to farmers about the challenges of climate change, I’m not met with skepticism. I’m met with questions. I’m met with inquiries about uncertainties and projections.”

Between farmers seeking out new ways to withstand these extreme weather patterns better and creative scientists doing their part to help by taking jobs in the agricultural industry, Bernacchi sounded a measure of hope.

He forecasted significant improvements to maintain food security will come from within the industry, with seed companies working in partnership with universities and government scientists. Even if climate
change isn’t solved writ large, Bernacchi said the food supply will be adapted through these scientific efforts to have enough resilience in the face of larger and more urgent climate changes in the future.

“The work I do isn’t necessarily going to impact what you’re buying at the grocery store tomorrow,” he said. “But the work I do is going to hopefully shed some light on how people understand what agriculture is, what it’s doing and how it’s likely going to change as our environment changes.”

“A lot of the things that I learned at Bradley with regards to what’s happening with our environment and how that’s impacting plants, it’s really come to fruition.”
– Bernacchi

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