EU project fielding crops for fuels

Young poplar trees
We are particularly interested in energy crops with no food value, which means that they dont contribute so heavily to the conflict of food versus fuel. We want to develop these crops to be grown on parcels of land which are perhaps not as suited to growing food crops.
Professor Gail Taylor
A new Seventh Framework programme project with a total budget of €11.65 million has gathered experts from eight European countries in anticipation of issues with the most crucial of resources – water – in a time when water shortages, drought and flood are increasingly common. With communities across the world set to struggle as the effects of climate change are felt more strongly, it is important that productivity, both in terms of food and non-food crops, is maintained.

To this end, the 22 partners involved in this project will primarily be focusing their efforts on developing three crops for bioenergy use. Academic researchers, crop breeders and industry partners are being united in the effort to accelerate the process of getting new water-stress resistant crops from the laboratory to the market.

Professor Gail Taylor, Director of Research for Biological Sciences at the University of Southampton, is leading the international consortium. Professor Taylor spoke to ScienceOmega.com about the scientific and social objectives of the project and how advances in DNA sequencing technology are enabling the accelerated development of crops for energy

What convinced the founders and funders of this consortium that such a project is necessary?
The project really stems from the need to use land more effectively across Europe. Europe is fairly limited in land terms and food security will become an issue if the predictions for changes in climate roll out as we imagine they will. There are already some issues around the price of food crops, so this project addresses the question of whether it is possible to grow non-food crops more effectively, with less water. This is very relevant for Europe and for the rest of the world.

Also, if bioenergy crops are going to stack up favourably against oil and other fossil fuels, they will need to have a low carbon footprint. Many factors contribute to that, including the use of fertilisers, how many times you have to plough a field, and all the operations of standard farming practice. One of the factors is water; if the crop needs irrigation the cost can be counted in terms of carbon. Its very important to keep those carbon costs down.

Thirdly, we are very interested in the concept of ecosystem services. This is the idea that ecosystems provide goods and services from which we all benefit. For example, going for a beautiful walk in woodland is an ecosystem service which that woodland provides. Other important ecosystem services include climate regulation and water. We rely absolutely on ecosystems for the provision of water, and the way we manage crops and the landscape has an impact on that. Its very important to get that right for the future.

Why is the research going to prioritise work on non-food, energy crops?
There are some very active research programmes looking at food crops and certainly what we are trying to do in improving efficiency of water use is just as relevant to food crops. However, our particular project addresses energy, because food, water and energy are all going to be of pressing importance over the next 30 to 50 years; its just another part of the jigsaw.

We are particularly interested in energy crops with no food value, which means that they dont contribute so heavily to the conflict of food versus fuel. We want to develop these crops to be grown on parcels of land which are perhaps not as suited to growing food crops. Food crops generally require productive, reasonably flat land which is easy to harvest and manage – high quality agricultural land. Our concept is to develop crops for less agriculturally valuable land, perhaps drier land. It may even be wetter land in some areas of Europe. This is a way of trying to make best use of under-utilised land for these crops.

Why is it important to bring together academics, crop breeders and commercial partners?
It is important that we cover the whole chain of supply, from doing the molecular biology and understanding the plant characteristics that contribute to drought tolerance, but developing this to commercial scale is less straightforward. The mechanisms we have in place are intended to accelerate progress through the chain; were hoping that it cuts down the time it might take these crops to get to the commercialisation stage.

What are the main scientific aims of the project, and what do you hope will be the outcomes?
There are several scientific aims. We are looking at three crops: poplar trees, elephant grass (or Miscanthus), and giant reed. They are all under-utilised currently and all three are at varying stages of development, so the questions we are asking vary between crops.

Poplar was the first tree species to have its full genome sequenced. Believe it or not, when we did that – about ten years ago – it cost roughly $30 million. Because of this sequence poplar is the model tree species and we have a lot of resources on the poplar. That means we can do some rather sophisticated population and association genetics, with big resources that can be harnessed to make links between useful drought tolerance characteristics and their underlying genes.

We have been collecting black poplar trees for over ten years– from Hungary to France to the dry, arid regions of Spain – assembling a unique collection of these trees from different environments. We want to mine their genetic diversity and find, for example, traits in the Spanish poplars that enable them to tolerate very drought-prone environments. The work of a PhD student in my laboratory is already giving clues, suggesting that this resilience might be related to how the stomata (small pores on the surface of the leaves) vary in response to drought. We have sequenced lots of other black poplar trees, and will try to link water use efficiency traits to genes. Theres a good chance well be able to find DNA variants for those traits and put them into a breeding pipeline.

Miscanthus is a tall, semi-tropical grass. In the UK there are around 5,000 to 10,000 hectares of this crop being grown at the moment. We dont have a full genome sequence, but there are quite a lot of genomic resources emerging in Miscanthus. We want to do something similar as with poplar; that is, to identify these unique plants which have the DNA variants of interest and focus on those traits. Well test Miscanthus in various sites throughout Europe to see how well it can grow and flourish in droughted environments.

In particular we have a collection which has been developed largely by the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth University, where there is a very active crossing and breeding programme.

The final crop we have chosen is called giant reed (Arundo), and we know virtually nothing about it. We dont have any genome sequence data, we cant manipulate it very easily to make transgenic giant reed, and we have very few collections. This project is about making a large collection of Arundo to find out how it can be grown more easily in culture. We will sequence the transcriptome of giant reed using second generation sequencing and get a huge amount of gene expression, or transcriptomic, data on the species. That will be carried out for many genotypes, capturing the genetic variation incredibly quickly and cheaply.

If you consider poplar, it took $30 million to obtain the first sequence. For giant reed, 20 to 50 individual genotypes will be sequenced for a fraction of that cost, providing a similar dataset. This is all moving towards identifying allelic variants in the crop genomes, to insert them into breeding programmes and then develop improved crops.

Are the interests and opinions of European society also being accounted for?
Of course, there are social implications of changing land use and moving towards cropping areas of land for dedicated, novel energy crops. Were not quite sure what the public perception of growing these crops is because they are relatively new. One of the work packages is concerned with trying to capture that information to see how we should move forward.

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