An international network of researchers established within an EU-funded has gained new insights into the genetics of crop reproduction. The project's results are feeding into global efforts to improve yields, reduce the impact of intensive farming on the environment, and strengthen food security for millions of people.
© nnerto - fotolia.com
Seeds and fruits such as rice, wheat and beans feed much of the world’s growing population.
“The vast majority of agricultural products are derived from the reproductive process of flowering plants. Therefore, increasing crop yields requires a detailed understanding of flower and fruit development,” says Lucia Colombo, head of the department of biosciences at the Università degli Studi di Milano in Italy.
As coordinator of the EU-funded project EVOCODE, Colombo oversaw the establishment of an international network of scientists dedicated to deciphering the genetic, molecular and physiological factors controlling flower and fruit development.
Their work has led to the identification of several so-called ‘master regulators’ governing the genes responsible for key aspects of reproduction, including the development of ovules, the seed coats that protect the developing embryo, and the fruits that protect the seed. The team has also gained new insight into how these regulators coordinate the formation of reproductive organs.
A productive network
EVOCODE brought together early stage and experienced researchers from Europe and Latin America with backgrounds in reproductive biology, developmental genetics, functional genomics, molecular genetics and bioinformatics. They used state-of-the-art tools to study the genetic mechanisms underlying plant reproduction.
“EVOCODE built a transcontinental exchange platform from which many researchers on both continents are benefitting now and in the future. This transfer of knowledge is extremely useful for studying plant species and gaining knowledge about key crops useful for future breeding programmes,” Colombo says.
The team’s initial focus was Arabidopsis thaliana, a type of rockcress related to cabbage and mustard. Considered a weed by gardeners, Arabidopsis thaliana was the first plant to have its entire genome sequenced. Its genetic changes are relatively easy to observe, making it a very useful model organism for research.
“Knowledge gained from studying Arabidopsis has since been transferred to fruits such as tomatoes and members of the Leguminoseae family, which includes beans, peas and soybeans, as well as cotton and cereals such as rice,” Colombo says.
EVOCODE’s researchers published 15 scientific papers in peer-reviewed journals and presented their results at 25 international conferences during the course of the project. They continue to build on the research, benefitting from the establishment of lasting collaboration between European and American groups to exchange information on plant reproduction.
“The success of this scheme has led to working relationships that transcend the scope of a single project,” Colombo says.
EVOCODE’s funding was provided through the EU’s Marie SkÅ‚odowska-Curie action’s ‘International Research Staff Exchange Scheme’. Colombo and some of the other EVOCODE participants are now leading ongoing research in new projects funded under the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme. These include EXPOSEED, a study of plant reproduction and seed development in Arabidopsis and some of the most important agricultural crops, and SEXSEED, focused on understanding the formation of female and male organs and seed development.
With improved knowledge of the genetic factors controlling how plants reproduce, novel techniques can be developed to enhance crop reproduction. The aim is to improve yields even in poor growing conditions by enabling plants to produce more seeds and fruit. Higher yields will also help to reduce the environmental impact of intensive farming.