Using gene science to breed drought-tolerant crops
Drought is one of the biggest worries for a farmer, sometimes threatening entire harvests, but a European Union (EU)-funded project is using the latest gene science to see whether the worst effects of water shortages could be averted with drought-tolerant plants.
The project, WATBIO, is studying how some plants can survive with less water than others. Backed by €9 million in EU funding, the project team is applying the latest DNA genome sequencing technologies to develop new crops with stronger drought tolerance. The five-year project, which started in November 2012, gathers 22 academic and industrial partners with expertise in molecular biology, plant science, cellular mechanisms, and next generation sequencing.
WATBIO project coordinator Gail Taylor says the project aims to identify the key genetic traits, shedding light on the fundamental mechanisms for drought tolerance. “We are trying to tackle this problem through the new technologies,” she says. “Even five years ago this project would not have been possible as DNA sequencing was relatively expensive. Now we are sequencing the genome of more than 50 poplar trees, sampled from across contrasting sites in Europe,” she adds.
Taylor, who is also Director of Research for Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton, says the way plants respond and cope with drought stress is very complex, and involves a multitude of genes and networks. “We are using genetics and genomics and we are trying to capture the variation in many genes simultaneously,” she says. “Scientific research is really entering a new era. If we can identify small changes, it might give us a clue to survival in stressful environments. These DNA variants can then be used in breeding programmes, enabling us to harness the power of molecular biology without the necessity of genetically modified (GM) crops,” she explains.
The three crops chosen are poplar trees, elephant grass (Miscanthus), and giant cane or river reed (Arundo donax). All are currently under-used, grow very fast, and have potential as energy crops.
Poplar is particular intriguing as it was the first tree species to have its full genome sequenced ten years ago. At the time, this cost about $30 million, but the price of sequencing has since tumbled to around $10,000. That gives researchers huge openings to analyse the genetics of its many European variants. The project also uses sophisticated technology to calculate algorithms from images of the samples, thus leaving the plants themselves untouched.
The three plants are all non-food, bioenergy crops. The choice was not just about avoiding arguments about the conflict of food versus fuel crops. It was also, Taylor says, about developing crops on the relatively inaccessible parcels of land that are perhaps unsuited to growing food. “It is about optimising land use across Europe. We’re looking at the mosaic of the landscape and seeing what we can do with the different parcels,” she says.
Water shortages remain a serious concern in Europe - the 2003 drought pushed European crop productivity down by 30% - and Taylor says climate change is likely to mean more extreme weather events in the coming years. “So time spent looking at how these plants can survive in such extreme conditions is time well spent,” she says. “What we want is to see the highest yield possible in these areas where water is short,” she concludes.