The University of Southampton is to lead a new €11.6 million EU funded research project to develop new drought tolerate crops for bioenergy and bio-products.
Professor Gail Taylor, Director of Research for Biological Sciences, is leading a new 22 partner research consortium that has gathered experts from across Europe to address the issue of crop productivity in a future climate, where episodes of drought and water shortage become increasingly common.
Water availability and quality have already been identified as the main pressure on societies as they adapt to global climate change over the coming decades. Water plays a crucial role in determining crop yield and in the drought of 2003, crop productivity across Europe fell by over 30 per cent. Irrigation water is scarce and not an option on much of Europe's land, so we need crops that better withstand drought.
The research is bringing together academics, crop breeders and commercial partners with the single focus of developing new plants for this future climate. The project is concerned with non-food crops for energy use - poplar, miscanthus and giant reed - and the approach is to use the very latest technologies now available for DNA genome sequencing.
Professor Gail Taylor comments: "Our primary aim is to characterise the vast amount of DNA variation in these under-utilised crops and harness this to produce better crops. Even five years ago this project wouldn't 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, including droughted southern sites. From this we can identify small changes that 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 GM crops."
The project places emphasis on bringing benefits for Europe through the development of new drought tolerant varieties. One of the partners is SweTree Technologies from Sweden, which is a forest biotechnology company. As the partner responsible for coordinating this commercialisation, Dr Magnus Hertzberg from SweTree comments: "The biological research conducted since Crick and Watson revealed the structure and function of DNA has reached the point where we can expect major breakthroughs in plant breeding. This EU funding has made possible a great collaboration between research scientists in universities and companies who deliver the benefits to society."
Benefit to society is a strong theme of the project. Dr Donal Murphy-Bokern will coordinate the consortium's communications and interactions with policy-makers. He comments: "The increasing use of biomass for energy presents Europe with two great challenges: delivering the biomass without competing with food production or reducing already stretched water resources. This research addresses both directly."