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Engineering tomato against environmental stress

Contract nr: FAIR-CT97-3493
Project nr: 3493
Project type: SC
Starting date: 01/04/1998
Duration: 50 months
Total cost: 1,837,092 EUR
EC Contribution: 1,250,000 EUR
Scientific Officer: Richard HARDWICK
Research topic: Plant health

Ozone and air pollutants may cause major crop losses in today's agriculture. Predictions suggest that this problem will only be aggravated in the near future, in spite of current efforts to control anthropogenic emissions into the atmosphere. Although the problem is generally well-recognised (EU directives 92/72/EEC; 96/62/EC), estimates on actual crop losses are very tentative. Moreover, our understanding of underlying biological mechanisms does not allow us to appraise indirect losses, due for example, to increased susceptibility to biotic and abiotic stress.

The objectives of this proposal are:
1) to provide data on ozone effects on tomato growth and fruit quality in both controlled chambers and open-top chambers in the field, for the improvement of current critical levels of ozone;
2) to further our understanding of the role of two factors that are thought to be determine air pollution sensitivity, i.e. ethylene and antioxidant enzymes;
3) to assess whether reduced susceptibility to air pollution and other oxidative stress conditions can be attained through genetic engineering of antioxidant enzymes.

The tomato is chosen as a model plant because there are indications that this high input crop is sensitive to environmental stresses such as ozone and high levels of light. It is amenable to transgene technology (in fact, it is amongst the first transgenic products to be released on the European market), and it is a crop of great nutritional value (being in many cases a major source of vitamin C intake) and economic importance. The competitiveness of Mediterranean tomatoes may be improved by reducing the susceptibility of the tomato fruit to environmental stress. U.S. tomatoes are harvested at an earlier, and therefore less sensitive, stage of fruit maturation. It is emphasised that, despite its economical importance, the study of air pollutants and oxidative stress in vegetable crops, and particularly in tomato fruit, is scientifically largely unexplored and therefore a novel contribution. This proposal brings together partners with proven expertise in different fields: plant biochemistry and indoor simulation of environmental conditions (GSF), plant environmental biology and physiology (CIEMAT), plant pathology (UPV), molecular aspects of oxidative stress (VIB,UH), molecular biology and biochemistry of the tomato fruit (UNOTT), and biotechnology of tomato (ZPS). Because of the complementary nature of this consortium, we are uniquely positioned for a "holistic" (top to bottom as well as bottom to top) approach to air pollutant stress in plants. Combining environmental, physiological, biochemical, and molecular studies within the same project on a single model plant is imperative in understanding the effects of air pollutants on plants in its various aspects, and for designing remedy strategies with current plant biotechnology techniques.

Current situation/results:
Phase I of the TOMSTRESS project was completed recently. Nine commercially important tomato varieties were cultivated under elevated ozone concentrations from the seedling until fruit ripening. These exposure studies were carried out in the field and in the glasshouse.
From these experiments data were obtained on ozone effects on tomato, especially on growth and performance. Furthermore, a model could be elaborated on the importance of biochemical parameters that are involved in the induction of oxidative cell death. This model is based on comparisons of cultivars with different ozone sensitivity and of leaves in the non-adapted (sensitive) and adapted (tolerant) state.
Important factors for ozone sensitivity of tomato leaves that are investigated in the project:
Ethylene biosynthesis and perception (ACC-oxidase, ACC-synthase)
Salicylic acid and derivatives
Antioxidant metabolism (eg. accumulation of reactive oxygene species).
Transgenic plants with modifications in the antioxidant metabolism were produced by the consortium. These plants will also be cultivated under elevated ozone levels (Phase II). More detailed information on the processes that determine ozone sensitivity / tolerance of tomatoes are expected.
For further information see the website of the project which is updated regularly.


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  • Wolfgang SCHUCH
    Wheat Improvement Center
    Norwich Research Park
    UK- NR47 UH Norwich
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  • Donald GRIERSON
    The University of Nottingham
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    UK-LE12 5RD Loughborough
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  • Dirk INZÉ
    Flanders Interuniversity Institute for Biotechnology
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  • Maria José SANZ
    Centro de Estudios Ambientales del Mediterraneo
    Parque Tecnologico (Sector Oeste)
    Charles H. Darwin 14
    E-46980 Paterna
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  • Pablo VERA
    Universidad Politecnica de Valencia
    Camino De Vera 5/n
    E-46022 Valencia
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    University of Helsinki
    Viikinkaari 5 D
    FIN-00014 Helsinki
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