‘A Constant Struggle to Survive’:
Learning from the Structure of Plants

craig brodersen
Craig Brodersen
Craig Brodersen was a college sophomore at Wake Forest University when a biology professor mentioned to the class that he was looking for a summer assistant to help with a field project in the mountains of Wyoming. Although Brodersen was on the pre-med track at the time, the opportunity intrigued him.
It didn’t hurt that the professor ended the lecture by showing a photo slide of himself fly-fishing along a pristine, rippling river.
Brodersen decided to give it a try, joining a research team that was characterizing the carbon budget of an entire ecosystem. During that summer, he measured gas exchange capacity of sagebrush communities, and deepened his understanding of the integrated nature of ecosystems.
The experience changed his life. After finishing his undergraduate studies he stayed on for a Master’s degree, and began studying the physiological ecology and alpine tree-line limits of spruce and fir trees. This work launched a career that has led him to F&ES, where he will begin as an Assistant Professor of Plant Physiological Ecology this semester.
“Before that experience I had little appreciation for those mountains and ecosystems on any other level than their inherent beauty,” Brodersen says. “But I came to realize that there was a whole community and ecosystem behind them, and with a little investigation into it’s functioning, you begin to realize it’s a living, breathing thing.”
“And I found that forests get more and more interesting as you figure out, ‘Wow, these trees are under a lot of stress but they’re still here.’ And there’s just this constant struggle to survive every year. That’s what drew me in.”
In the years since, Brodersen’s professional and academic career has taken him in many directions. He has studied the alpine limits of tree species on Mount Fuji, explored the physiology of leaf optics in Vermont, and helped pioneer the use of 3D imaging to better understand the internal functions of living plants.
But throughout career, Brodersen’s work has consistently focused on the fundamental relationships between plant structure and function, and how different species have adapted to utilize limited resources — particularly light and water — even as biotic and abiotic environments change.
Brodersen comes to F&ES from the University of Florida’s Citrus Research & Education Center, where he studied the mechanisms that help citrus tree survive, fight disease, and resist drought conditions.
Before that, he split six years as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis’s Department of Viticulture & Enology and the Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

In that setting, he worked with researchers who are studying ways to breed new varieties of grapevines that require less water, and working with growers to develop new water-use strategies that will put less strain on regional water demands in the face of crippling drought.
For his part, Brodersen has helped develop methods that — for the first time — provide scientists a 3-dimensional glimpse at how water moves through grapevines, an advance that will make it easier to adapt new breeds that are more resistant to drought or that require less water.
Using technologies developed at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Brodersen and his colleagues produced visual images of the complex, twisting network of vessels that, in some species, have adapted strategies to survive even under drought stress.
He expects that this research, which he will continue at Yale, will ultimately allow scientists to compare the “plumbing” and physiology of species that grow in wet and dry environments, pinpoint the traits that allow some grapevines to thrive even when water availability is low, and breed new varieties that retain those traits while also producing a grape that can be used for, say, a fine Merlot or Chardonnay wine.
“So, we can figure out ways to take what nature is already giving us, in closely related species or varieties, and figure out ways to modify existing species so that they use less water,” Brodersen says.
“And we’re just at the tip of the iceberg,” he adds. “We’re looking at grapevines right now. But obviously this potentially could have implications for all sorts of crop species.”
– Kevin Dennehy    kevin.dennehy@yale.edu    203 436-4842
PUBLISHED: August 27, 2014
Note: Yale School of the Environment (YSE) was formerly known as the Yale School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES). News articles posted prior to July 1, 2020, refer to the School's name at that time.