In August of 2008 Jacob Schaefer, PhD, on vacation in San Diego, picked up a copy of the Los Angeles Times.
As it happened, the newspaper was running a series on the wildfires in the western United States.
The wildfires, he read, are more frequent they now occur every few years instead of every few decades and they are burning larger areas.
The more intense fire cycle is fueled by cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum), an invasive plant that is rapidly displacing native sagebrush plant communities.
Schaefer, the Charles Allen Thomas Professor of Chemistry in Arts & Sciences, was intrigued. At home in St. Louis he was studying the response of soybeans to stressful growing conditions. Soybeans, frankly, were having trouble coping.
What about cheatgrass, he wondered? The way it was mopping up the West suggested it might be running its metabolism differently from other plants.
His hunch proved to be right. His results, published in the April 15 issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society, show that cheatgrass biochemistry is better suited to elevated carbon dioxide concentrations than soybean biochemistry.
The research adds to a growing body of evidence challenging the idea that all plants will benefit from rising carbon dioxide levels. Some plants will be helped, but others will be harmed.
A grass' cheating ways
Like many successful invasive plants, cheatgrass has more strategies for outcompeting other plants than a Swiss army knife has blades.
It's called cheatgrass in the first place because it fools farmers into thinking their winter wheat is coming along well.
Cheatgrass sneaks ahead of other plants by growing early and fast, depleting soil moisture before other plants break dormancy. (It has a fibrous root system that draws down soil moisture to what is called "the permanent wilting point.")
Cheatgrass sets seed and dries completely in
|Contact: Diana Lutz|
Washington University in St. Louis