Does Australia hold the key to food security?

This article is reposted from the Devex blog with kind permission from the author, Lisa Cornish.

CIAT research

Plant samples in the genebank at the International Center for Tropical Agriculture’s Genetic Resources Unit, at the institution’s headquarters in Colombia. Credit: Neil Palmer / CIAT. Used under license: CC BY-SA 2.0.

It was too dry in the Australian region of Wimmera to produce crops last summer. This year, floods are set to wipe out yields again. Like a number of other regions across the planet, climate change is starting to be felt.

“It’s like this every year somewhere,” said Sally Norton, head of the Australian Grains Genebank, which stores diverse genetic material for plant breeding and research.

For Norton and many of her colleagues in agricultural genetics, the picture is increasingly clear: The variety of crops used today are not able to withstand the changing conditions and changes expected in the future.

Australia’s biodiversity may offer some help, according to discussions at the recent International Genebank Managers Annual General Meeting held in Horsham, Victoria. The gathering, which brings together 11 countries, focused on how to better conserve seeds, build databases to manage collections, boost capacity across the world and fill gaps in genebanks.

Researchers are particularly interested in crop wilds, “the ancestors of our domesticated crops,” Marie Haga, executive director of the The Crop Trust, explained to Devex. Australia is one of the richest sources of these seeds. “It’s like the wolf being the ancestor to our domesticated dogs. Crop wild relatives have traits that we have lost in the domestication process — they might need less water, might live in unfriendly conditions, may be resistant to pests and diseases.”

As climate change continues to batter agricultural yields, crop wild relatives could provide resilience. The seeds give breeders and farmers new options of plant varieties with traits to withstand a variety of conditions based on the harsh climates they are found — drought, fire, flood, poor soil, high salinity.

For Haga, crop wild relatives are a solution for food security. “The challenge is that many of the varieties widely used in modern agriculture are very vulnerable, because we have been breeding on the same line and they are adapted to very specific environment,” Haga said. Varieties that flourish today, she said, could wither as the climate fluctuates.

“Utilization of the natural diversity of crops is key to the future,” she said. “The climate is rapidly changing and we need to feed a growing population with more nutritious food. It is very hard to see how we can do this unless we go back to the building blocks of agriculture.”

Norton agreed: “Crop wild relatives have an amazing adaptability to changing conditions,” she told Devex. “When we talk about food security, we are talking about getting varieties in farm paddocks that have greater resilience to extreme conditions. It may not be the highest yield, but you are going to get something from this crop.”

Why have they been overlooked?

Crop wild relatives have so far been underutilized in the research and breeding process of crops.

“We have this fabulous natural diversity out there including 125,000 varieties of wheat and 200,000 varieties of rice.” Haga said. “We have not at all unlocked the potential of these crops.”

One reason is a dearth of research. “Adapting Agriculture to Climate Change: Collecting, Protecting and Preparing Crop Wild Relatives,” a 10-year project led by Haga to ensure long-term conservation of crop wild relatives, conducted a global survey of distribution and conservation and found that of 1,076 known wild relatives for 81 crops, more than 95 percent are insufficiently represented in genebanks and 29 percent are completely missing. They are missing purely due to the fact that they have yet to be collected.

“Genebank managers are generally open to include crop wild relatives in their collections.” Haga said. “It’s just quite simply that not enough work has been done in this area and the full potential is yet to be realized,” she said.

At the moment, seeds are being collected in 25 countries around the world as part of the crop wild relative project, but it is Australia that has been identified as one of the richest sources for crop wild relatives in the world. Because of the continent’s low population density and vast, undisturbed natural environment, a wide variety of species have been conserved, said Norton.

Australia holds significant diversity of wild relatives of rice, sorghum, pigeon pea, banana, sweet potato and eggplant currently missing from global collections, according to research by the Australian Seed Bank Partnership. Forty species have been prioritized for collection with high hopes that they will enable crops to withstand the harsh environmental conditions in which Australian species are found.

There are still many areas of Australia yet to be surveyed, and the full extent of its agricultural riches may yet to be tapped.

Australian researchers will play an important role in pre-breeding local species of wild relatives to improve their use in breeding programs. Crop wild relatives have historically been used in a variety of crops including synthetic wheat, but Australian native wild relatives have been harder to include in the breeding process.

“In the next 10 to 15 years it would be surprising if there is not something coming out that hasn’t got a component of Australian native wild relative in it,” Norton said who is currently involved in the collection of Australian crop wild relatives.

Collection of crop wild relatives is time sensitive

There is an urgency to collect crop wild relatives. Not only are wild species needed now to support changing environmental conditions affecting crops and farming, urbanization is putting crop wild relatives at risk of disappearing.

“We need to collect these sooner rather than later,” Norton told Devex. “Urbanization has a big impact on any native environment, let alone crop wild relatives. We know what species on our target list are more threatened than others — urbanization, flooding and fire are all risks to their security. We certainly have a priority list of species to collect and we need to make sure we target the ones that are under threat first.”

Once the varieties are conserved, breeders and farmers will need to be convinced to start using crop wild relatives. Many are already on board. “Most breeders understand these wild relatives have great potential,” Haga said.

Still, wild relatives can be difficult to work with and produce a lower yield. Haga expects there to be some reluctance, though limited.

“The understanding of the need is increasing and we feel very confident that this material will be used and some of them may be the game changer we are looking for,” she said.

The plans for crop wild relatives

Haga’s 10-year project on crop wild relatives is halfway complete. They are nearing the end of the collection phase and entering the pre-breeding process, before they are able to breed and deliver new species to farmers.

Australian support for the program includes an agreement for additional amount of $5 million. That comes on top of previous support of $21.2 million to the Crop Diversity Endowment Fund, which supports crop diversity globally and with a focus on the Indo-Pacific. Brazil, Chile, Germany, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Switzerland and the United States are among other supporters of the endowment fund that hopes to reach $850 million. In Australia, further resources are still required to fund and support better seed collection at home.

Globally, plans for crop wild relatives includes raising greater awareness of their potential and importance.

“We have a big job to do to create awareness of the important of crop diversity generally and crop wild relatives specifically,” Haga said. “We have been speaking for years about biodiversity in birds and fish and a range of other animals, but we have talked very little about conserving the diversity of crops. I will fight for all types of diversity, but especially plants.”


 

This article is reposted from the Devex blog with kind permission from the author, Lisa Cornish.

Temperate matters in agriculture

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Most of the world’s food is produced in temperate zones. The Global Food Security program’s Evangelia Kougioumoutzi reports on the TempAg network.

Agricultural production in temperate regions is highly productive with a significant proportion of global output originating from temperate (i.e. non-tropical) countries – 21% of global meat production and 20% of global cereal production [link opens PDF] originate from Europe alone. This proportion is very likely to increase in light of climate change.

Temperature zones

Little fluffy clouds: temperate zones are well suited to agricultural production. Image credit: connect11/Thinkstock

TempAg is an international research collaboration network that was established to increase the impact of agricultural research and inform policy making in the world’s temperate regions. Its work does not solely focus on research, but also provides insights into current thinking through mapping existing scientific findings and outstanding knowledge gaps. In this way, the network aspires to become a platform for the alignment of national agricultural research and food partnership programs (such as Global Food Security) that will enable the development of more effective agricultural policies with a long-term vision.

Since its official inauguration in Paris in April 2015, TempAg has been leading a series of on-going workstreams around:

  • Boosting resilience of agricultural production systems at multiple scales and levels
  • Optimising land management for ecosystem services and food production
  • Improving sustainability of food productivity in the farms & enterprise level

You can read more about these themes on the TempAg website: http://tempag.net/themes/.

Future foresights

After 18 months of existence, TempAg held a foresight workshop in London on 5–7 October to determine its future priorities.

Forty delegates took part in the workshop, coming from the 14 different countries in the temperate region, and from academia, policy, industry, and professionals at the science–policy interface. Through a series of presentations and interactive sessions, participants were invited to consider what the current and future challenges are in temperate agriculture, taking into account the needs of policy makers and industry in helping them to improve sustainable agriculture practices.

 

Temperate zones

Temperate zones cover much of the world’s major food-growing areas. Image from Wikipedia/CIA-Factbook

 

To tackle sustainability in temperate agriculture, there is a need to better manage risks and stresses (both biotic and abiotic), as well as finding ways to manage the restoration of natural capital, ecosystem services, and soils. During the workshop, it was noted that utilizing the diversity within different agricultural systems, via identifying the best practice and using the appropriate technological mix, may be a way forward in making production systems more sustainable.

Participants stressed the importance of taking a holistic view of the sustainability agenda within agriculture, without just focusing on environmental aspects. This means also taking into consideration socioeconomic factors, such as making food value chains (like turning milk into cheese), more equitable by identifying who gets the equity from the food commodities’ prices, or identifying what the optimum legal framework for sharing data might be.

The group also considered sustainable agriculture issues from a policy and industry needs angle. It was interesting to see that dealing with shocks (environmental, socioeconomic, and technological) featured highly in this discussion as well. It was suggested that increasing resilience to these shocks could be facilitated via the widespread diffusion of existing technologies. Engaging with farmers during this time would be necessary to identify technology uptake barriers.

Forward moves

Future-proofing agricultural resilience and enhancing the capacity to respond to shocks was deemed an urgent priority, so the development of a comprehensive map identifying the multiple shocks that could impact on farm resilience in temperate zones might be a future workstream for TempAg. Work in this area could help develop models to assess the flexibility within agricultural production systems.

 

What we eat is largely based on the types of food we produce. Therefore, healthy diets are intrinsically linked with our production systems. Another area of interest for TempAg could be to explore what the nutritional value of crops should be for better health, and what a nutritional diet will look like for sustainable temperate agriculture. Developing frameworks in this area could further inform future farming practices in temperate areas.

Since TempAg’s initiation, two major global policy agendas have been adopted by the international community: the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris COP21 agreement. Identifying what types of data and scientific evidence policy makers will need to achieve the agriculture-relevant targets was another area where TempAg could focus its activity moving forward.

Finally, delegates highlighted areas of work that could help to build more effective policies with a longer-term vision. These included developing economic tools for valuing natural capital and ecosystem services, as well as integrated assessment tools to monitor the performance and impact (environmental cost) of existing policies.

This article is cross-posted with the Global Food Security blog.


About Evangelia Kougioumoutzi

Evangelia is International Coordinator & Programme Manager for the Global Food Security program (GFS). Before joining GFS, Evangelia worked as an Innovation Manager for GFS partners BBSRC. She holds a PhD in plant development and genetics from the University of Oxford.

 

Flipping the symposium

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Answers to the question: “Which crop species are most critical with regard to stress resilience?”

Lisa Martin, GPC Outreach & Communications Manager

GPC Executive Director Ruth Bastow and I recently travelled to Australia to hold the GPC’s annual general meeting – but we didn’t go all that way for a one-day meeting! We also took the opportunity to attend ComBio 2016, a large conference jointly hosted by the Australian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the Australia and New Zealand Society for Cell and Developmental Biology, and GPC Member Organization the Australian Society of Plant Scientists.

Sadly, one person was conspicuous by his absence – GPC President Bill Davies, who had been due to give more than one talk at the conference, was unable to fly out to Australia at very short notice. While Ruth and our Chair Professor Barry Pogson could cover his talk during the GPC’s own lunchtime symposium, this left Dr Rainer Hofmann’s ‘Abiotic Stress and Climate Change’ session one speaker short at the last minute!

Answers to the question, "Which challenges do these crops face?"

Answers to the question, “Which challenges do these crops face?”

Fortunately Rainer, who happens to be a representative to the GPC for the New Zealand Society of Plant Biology, found a quick solution to the hole in his program: it was time for a bit of audience participation!

The ‘flipped classroom’ is an approach I’d heard of, but was not overly familiar with – however, according to Rainer it is used quite extensively in New Zealand, where plant biologists can be geographically isolated. Unlike the traditional university lecture, in which the teacher gives a presentation and the students go away to consolidate what they have learned with revision notes or problems to solve, the flipped classroom turns this model on its head. Instead, students are given the subject content to learn in advance, then bring their own questions to the lecture.

Arguably, this approach makes better use of students’ contact time and the lecturer’s expertise, and provides a richer and more independent learning experience. This model also works very well in distance learning: topic notes and presentation slides can be emailed out in advance, then a video-linked webinar can be used to connect students and teachers, and a web-tool like Socrative Student can be used to ask and answer questions online.

Answers to the question, "What are key solutions to address these challenges, in the next 3 years and in the longer term?"

Answers to the question, “What are key solutions to address these challenges, in the next 3 years and in the longer term?”

Rainer used this idea to fill the gap in his symposium – and it was great! He asked three important questions, and members of the audience were invited to provide short answers via the Socrative Student platform using their computers, cell phones or tablets – answers were then displayed on a screen in real time. Thank goodness for WiFi! The questions and answers can be seen in the word clouds we’ve created here – the size of the word provides an indication of the frequency of that particular response, so it’s easy to see which were the most and least popular answers. These responses provided useful, engaging stimuli for audience-led discussion – I’d really like to see this model used at other meetings!

The three questions asked were:

  1. Which crop species are most critical with regard to stress resilience?
  2. Which challenges do these crops face?
  3. What are key solutions to address these challenges, a) in the next three years, and b) in the longer term?

What would your answers have been? Leave us a comment below!

Down Under: the Global Plant Council’s 2016 AGM

img_20161006_075356Lisa Martin, GPC Outreach & Communications Manager

As a truly global organization, the Global Plant Council hosts its annual general meeting (AGM) on a different continent each year, to give our members from far-flung corners of the globe the opportunity to come together to celebrate progress and discuss future strategies to develop plant science for global challenges.

With our current Chair Professor Barry Pogson hailing from ‘down under’, this year’s AGM was held in Brisbane, Australia, which made for a warm, sunny change from autumnal London for Ruth and I!

Starting bright and early at 8 am on Monday 3rd October, representatives from the GPC’s member societies joined the GPC’s Executive Board at a hotel in Brisbane’s central business district. After a welcome from the Chair, and a minute’s respectful silence to remember our former Board Member Professor Carl Douglas, who sadly passed away earlier this year, introductions were made and we got down to business. Ruth and myself first provided introductions to, and updates on, the main GPC initiatives and activities.

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While waiting for our Stress Resilience white paper to be published, why not read our Nutritional Security report? (Link opens PDF – right-click and save-as to download a copy to your computer!)

The DivSeek initiative continues to grow in strength and numbers, with 67 partner organizations now committed to working together to address genomic and phenomic data challenges in plant science. With funding from the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Ruth has been providing essential coordination services specifically for this project, and with DivSeek Chair (Professor Susan McCouch) and a Steering Committee in place, the initiative is making real progress; a number of working groups have been launched to actively engage DivSeek partners and help the initiative advance its mission and aims.

Our other major, current initiative is in the area of Stress Resilience. As you may have read around this time last year, the GPC held a workshop and discussion forum on the subject of ‘Stress Resilient Cropping Systems for the Future’, in conjunction with our 2015 AGM in Brazil. This successful two-day event brought together experts in this area to share and showcase new research, tools and techniques. We are now turning our discussions from this meeting into a forthcoming white paper, and hopefully a commentary or two for publication in a high impact journal – we’ll let you know when these have been launched!

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Lisa talked to the Global Plant Council about our successful outreach and communications activities. Do you follow us on Twitter or Facebook?

Then it was my turn to speak on the subject of outreach and communication. With much help from our New Media Fellow (NMF) Sarah Jose (and our former NMF Amelia-Frizell Armitage, who left the GPC for a new job earlier this year), the GPC’s social media efforts have been tremendously successful this year. We now have nearly 3000 followers on Twitter, hundreds of ‘fans’ on Facebook, and over 1200 subscribers to our monthly e-Bulletin (though readership is much wider, thanks to many of our Member Organizations who also distribute this newsletter!). We were also pleased to welcome Current Plant Biology to our journal supporters; they join Journal of Experimental Botany, Nature Plants and New Phytologist in providing some financial sponsorship to support our outreach efforts.

In other activity updates, we discussed Plantae, the social media-cum-knowledge hub that the GPC has been working on developing with the American Society of Plant Biologists. Plantae is in beta testing mode to capture feedback on the design and user experience, but is growing and evolving all the time. We encourage you to register an account and sign up, if you haven’t already done so!

Sadly our President Bill Davies was unable to attend the AGM, but Ruth and Barry explained the premise of a new GPC Knowledge Exchange initiative that Bill is working hard to get off the ground. If successful in securing funding to progress this project, we hope to be involved with the development of an online training platform to transfer knowledge from the laboratory to the field – an exciting idea that will, we hope, be of invaluable benefit to communities in developing regions.

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-14-37-18As with many research networks and non-profit organizations, securing long term funding for the GPC is a continual challenge. The GPC’s main source of income is its member organizations; a revised membership fee structure was agreed at last year’s AGM, but further refinement and additional sources of funding will be required to ensure the continued sustainability of the GPC. As such we are actively seeking donations to help us continue the work of GPC so if you would like to make a contribution to support our efforts, you can do so via our PayPal giving link here: http://globalplantcouncil.org/donate.

Happily, we are pleased to welcome three new affiliate members to our ranks – the Center for Plant Aging Research in Korea, the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology in Germany, and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology in Australia.

Before discussing the GPC’s vision for the future, we took the opportunity to hear from our Member Organizations about what they would like the GPC to do for them, and what they can do for us. Lots of excellent suggestions for cross-collaborations, outreach, and novel funding sources were made, and we will be eagerly following up on these in the coming months – watch this space!

Aside from plant science, we found some time to familiarize ourselves with the local wildlife!

Aside from plant science, we found some time to familiarize ourselves with the local wildlife!

In addition to the AGM GPC also hosted a lunchtime symposium during the ComBio 2016 meeting, entitled, “Addressing Global Challenges in Plant Science: the Importance of Co-operation beyond National Boundaries”. During this session, we showcased exemplar projects involving multi-national stakeholders, stressing that global challenges need global solutions, and highlighting the unique and essential role that GPC plays.

Ruth spoke about DivSeek, GPC Treasurer Vicky Buchanan-Wollaston spoke about our Stress Resilience initiative, and Barry provided an overview of the Nutritional Security Initiative and also filled in for Bill by talking about our proposed plans for the knowledge exchange platform mentioned above. Professor Andy Borrell from the University of Queensland also gave an engaging and insightful talk about why a transnational approach to plant, crop and agricultural science is needed, highlighting some of the real-world scenarios where the GPC might offer practical, proactive support for research across borders.

It was fantastic to see over 70 plant scientists who gave up their lunchtime to attend our symposium – there were plenty of questions and very positive feedback at the end that we hope this will spark new ideas, interactions and collaborations. We felt very encouraged by the interest in and support for the GPC and its initiatives, and look forward to being able to continue serving the global plant science community.

Using plants to convert explosives to fertilizers: an interview with Neil Bruce

Neil Bruce

Professor Neil Bruce

This week we spoke to Professor Neil Bruce, whose research at the University of York (UK) focuses on metabolic pathways. His insights into the detoxification of pollutants by plants and microorganisms has led to promising new solutions to help clean up polluting explosives from military testing.

 

Could you begin by telling us a little about your research interests?

I have very broad research interests that often revolve around finding enzymes for biotechnological applications. A particular focus of my lab is the biochemistry and molecular genetics of plant and microbial metabolism of xenobiotic (foreign) compounds, such as environmental pollutants. Elucidating these metabolic pathways often results in the discovery of new enzymes that catalyze interesting chemistries. Being a biologist at heart, I’m interested in the evolutionary origin of these enzymes, but also by studying their structure and function I’m exploring how these enzymes can be engineered to further improve their properties for a particular application, such as environmental remediation or biocatalysis.

 

 

You spoke at the GARNet 2016 meeting about engineering plants to remediate explosives pollution. Could you explain what this problem is and how it affects both people and the environment?

Explosive compounds used in munitions are highly toxic and the potential for progressive accumulation of such compounds in soil, plants, and groundwater is a significant concern at military sites. It is estimated that in the US alone, 10 million hectares of military land is contaminated with components of munitions. The explosives mainly used in artillery, mortars and bombs are 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene (TNT) and Composition B (containing TNT and hexahydro-1,3,5-trinitro-1,3,5-triazine (RDX)). The US Department of Defense estimated that the clean-up of unexploded ordnance, discarded military munitions and munition constituents on its active ranges would cost between $16 billion and $165 billion. Explosives pollution is, however, a global problem, with large amounts of land and groundwater contaminated by TNT and RDX, including polluted sites in the UK that date back to the First and Second World Wars. Explosives pollution will continue to be a pressing issue while there is a requirement for military to train and the existence of armed conflict requires munitions to be manufactured. There is an urgent need to develop sustainable in situ technologies to contain and treat these pollutants.

 

TNT toxicity in plants

TNT is toxic to plants because of the actions of an enzyme called monodehydroascorbate reductase, which breaks TNT down into a toxic form. Plants lacking this enzyme, such as the mdhar6 mutant plants on the right, can grow very well on TNT-polluted soil. Credit: Johnston et al. (2015).

 

How did you develop the idea of using plants to remove explosives pollution? What benefits do plants have over the microorganisms from which the enzymes are obtained?

We have worked closely with the UK Ministry of Defence and US Army to understand the fate of explosives in the environment. Knowledge of their effects on biological systems is important, as this information can be used to support the management of contaminated sites. We have, therefore, been uncovering the molecular mechanisms behind these detoxification processes in plants, and have used this knowledge, in combination with studies on the bacterial degradation of pollutants, to successfully engineer transgenic plants able to remediate toxic explosive pollutants in a process called ‘phytoremediation’.

An innovative aspect of our work has been the use of genetic engineering to combine the biodegradative capabilities of explosives-degrading bacteria with the high biomass, stability and detoxification systems inherent in plants. While it is possible to find explosives-degrading bacteria on polluted land, they do not degrade the explosives fast enough to prevent leaching into the groundwater. Our engineered transgenic plant systems, however, can efficiently remove toxic levels of TNT and RDX from contaminated soil and water.

 

You mentioned that you are currently testing transgenic switchgrass to remove RDX and TNT pollution in the US. Why did you choose this species and have you considered developing other species suited to different environments?

Plants appropriate for the phytoremediation of explosives need to be adaptable to conditions on military ranges, for example, they need good fire tolerance, and to be able to grow over a wide geographical range. Switchgrass meets these criteria, and is also deep-rooting, can be grown on marginal lands, and researchers can benefit from established methods for genetically engineering switchgrass. We have also been engineering other grass species and have considered fast-growing deep-rooting trees such as poplar.

 

Turning explosives into fertilizers

In a poetic twist, rather than turning fertilizers into explosives, Professor Bruce’s phytoremediating plants convert explosives into fertilizer. Credit: Neil Bruce.

 

How quickly can engineered plants remove this pollution?

In the lab these plants can remove levels of explosives pollution found in the environment within a matter of days. We are currently carrying out field trials with our transgenic plants on a military site in the US, to observe their phytoremediation effectiveness in the real world. If these trials are successful, a number of demonstration studies on contaminated sites will be required to convince end users of the benefits of phytoremediation for remediating and maintaining military land. These demonstration studies will also allow us to evaluate any risks, which will be important to obtain further approval from the US Department of Agriculture to be able to use these plants on a larger scale.

 

What other projects are you working on? Could you elaborate on any recent discoveries?

As well as explosives, we are also working on the use of plants to extract platinum group metals (PGMs) from mining waste. PGMs are used in an ever-expanding array of technologies and demand is spiralling upwards; however, these are rare and expensive to mine. It is essential that these metal reserves are utilized and recycled responsibly, not dispersed and lost into the environment. Plants can take up metals from their environment and, in the case of PGMs, can deposit them as nanoparticles within their tissues. Importantly, we have recently shown that plants containing palladium nanoparticles can also be used to make efficient biocatalysts, and we are currently using synthetic biology in plants to improve palladium uptake and nanoparticle formation.

 


More information:

Johnston, E.J., Rylott, E.L., Beynon, E., Lorenz, A, Chechik, V. and Bruce, N.C. (2015) Monodehydroascorbate reductase mediates TNT toxicity in plants. Science. 349: 1072-1075.

Gunning, V., Tzafestas, K., Sparrow, H., et al. (2014) Arabidopsis glutathione transferases U24 and U25 exhibit a range of detoxification activities with the environmental pollutant and explosive, 2,4,6-trinitrotoluenePlant Physiol. 165: 854-865.

Rylott, E.L.. Budarina, M.V., Barker, A., Lorenz, A., Strand, S.E. and Bruce, N.C. (2011) Engineering plants for the phytoremediation of RDX in the presence of the co-contaminating explosive TNT. New Phytologist, 192: 405-413.

Farming Futures: integrating plant research and industry in the agri-food supply chain

This week we speak to Tim Williams, the Business Manager of Farming Futures and Research Fund Development Manager at Aberystwyth University, UK.

Could you give a brief introduction to Farming Futures and its mission?

Farming Futures is an independent, UK-based, inclusive agri-food supply chains alliance. Our mission is to work with researchers and industry to share knowledge, with the aim of improving the sustainability and productive efficiency of agriculture, all within the context of healthy, high-quality food.

 

What is the history of the organization?

Farming Futures started with an idea by Professor Wayne Powell in 2009 (then the director of the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS) at Aberystwyth) in discussion with Mark Price, who was the Managing Director of British supermarket chain Waitrose. It was launched in 2010, starting out as the Centre of Excellence for UK Farming (CEUKF). Waitrose seed-funded Farming Futures, and since then we have received support from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB) and Innovate UK.

 

Farming Futures

The inauguration meeting of Farming Futures in 2009, then known as the Centre of Excellence for UK Farming. Left-Right: Tim Williams, Wayne Powell, Heather Jenkins, David Davies, Philip Morgan, Jamie Newbold.

 

How has plant and crop research been integrated into the recommendations presented by Farming Futures?

Plant science is the fundamental driver for agri-food development. We work closely with industry, as well as the AHDB and other farm advisory bodies across the UK to inform them about new developments. Accelerated, directed breeding programs using genomic and phenomic technologies are helping us to develop new varieties that offer more productive, more resilient, environmentally friendly plants – not just as food crops, but also for soil quality, nutrient retention, flood reduction, energy biomass, renewable chemistry, and a host of other desirable characteristics.

Historically, to paraphrase a fellow botanist, we have bred ‘needy, greedy plants’ that deplete resources and need lots of nasty chemicals to keep them growing. Now scientists are mining the genomes of crop ancestors to rediscover the genetic traits we unwittingly threw away on the route to increased yield.

 

What roles do research partners such as universities play?

We work together in a pre-competitive way to enable research, and to represent farming within agri-food policy – researchers from different organizations can collaborate thanks to our partners’ trusting relationships with each other. Collaborations in science are vital because the problems our global society faces are multi-factorial, non-linear and multi-disciplinary. They are far too complex for the typical university research team, working alone, to address efficiently. We need the equivalent of the CERN Large Hadron Collider project for agri-food.

In addition to helping researchers to bring in millions of pounds worth of applied research projects (at least £12 million, but it is notoriously difficult to find out what industry is funding), Farming Futures helped to establish the government-funded Agri-Food Tech Centres of Innovation for a total of around £90 million, bringing in industry to co-fund and support three of the four: the Agrimetrics Centre, Agri-Epi-Centre and Centre of Innovation Excellence in Livestock. In time, these Centres will catalyze a lot of collaborative research and will help stimulate innovation and technology uptake by industry.

 

What climate change challenges will farmers face? Are there any specific challenges that Farming Futures can address?

Farming Futures and its network brings together scientists from different disciplines to discuss these problems and potential solutions. For instance, people from the UK’s national weather service (the Met Office) and some of the biggest food retailers and processors in the world come together at our conferences and workshops to think through scenarios and solutions. These solutions include breeding crops for increased resilience, not just peak yield. We are running out of fungicides that work efficiently, in the same way that we are running out of antibiotics; however, some very clever scientists have worked out some potential solutions that are more environmentally sound, so I am an optimist.

This problem solving is best done at the supply-chain level as it brings in a wider expertise. As I repeat often, a colleague once said to the board of one of the world’s biggest brewers, “No barley = no beer = no business”, inferring the question, “What are you doing to ensure that barley growers are going to be able to supply you in the future?”

 

Your website has an interesting study from 2011 highlighting six potential jobs of the future, including geoengineer, energy farming, web 3.0 farm host, pharmer, etc. How can students direct their skill development to meet the needs of the future?

There are many emerging jobs and skills, but each of these named jobs from 2011 are actually in practice now. The web 3.0 has now become web 4.0, which is the “internet of things”, with data collection from lots of devices including drones for precision agriculture and robots for weeding and picking crops.

The future of agri-food is in big data, including consumer behavior, weather forecasting, genomics, phenomics, and real-time analysis of the growth progress of plants and animals on-farm. We need more electronic and mechanical engineers with an understanding of biology, as well as more biologists who work within the agri-food industries and in government policy development.

 

Farming Future exhibition

The Farming Futures exhibition stand at the Livestock Event, NEC Birmingham, 2012.

 

What are you currently working on?

We are currently working with partners on a number of projects across the Agri-Food Tech Centres and trying to form more research collaborations. One of our big projects is The National Library for Agri-Food. I am currently working with web developers and experts from Jisc and the British Library to scope the requirements and to build a demonstration web site.

Finally, I would just like to add that we are open to collaborations across agri-food supply chains and will work to foster them, either openly or privately as appropriate.

 


In addition to IBERS, Farming Futures has four founding members (Northern Ireland’s Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), Harper Adams University (HAU), NIAB with East Malling Research (NIAB-EMR), and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC)) and an influential Steering Board, chaired by Lord Curry of Kirkharle, who is very well known and respected in UK government and farming.

 

1000 Plants

The 1000 plants initiative (1KP) is a multidisciplinary consortium aiming to generate large-scale gene sequencing data for over 1000 species of plants. Included in these species are those of interest to agriculture and medicines, as well as green algae, extremophytes and non-flowering plants. The project is funded by several supporters, and has already generated many published papers.

Gane Wong is a Professor in the Faculty of Science at the University of Alberta in Canada. Having previously worked on the Human Genome Project, he now leads the 1KP initiative. Dennis Stevenson, Vice President for Botanical Research, New York Botanical Garden, and Adjunct Professor, Cornell University (USA), studies the evolution and classification of the Cycadales. He became involved in the 1KP initiative as an opportunity to sample the breadth of green plant diversity.

We spoke to both Professor Stevenson (DS) and Professor Wong (GW) about the initiative. Professor Douglas Soltis from Florida Museum of Natural History also contributed to this blog post with input in editing the answers.

What do you think has been the biggest benefit of 1KP?

DS: This has been an unparalleled opportunity to reveal and understand the genes that have led to the plant diversity we see around us. We were able to study plants that were pivotal in terms of plant evolution but which have not previously been included in sequencing projects as they are not considered important economically

The 1KP project presented a fantastic opportunity to explore plant biodiversity. Photo by Bob Leckridge. Used under Creative Commons 2.0.

The 1KP project presented a fantastic opportunity to explore plant biodiversity. Photo by Bob Leckridge. Used under Creative Commons 2.0.

GW: The project was funded by the Government of Alberta and the investment firm Musea Ventures to raise the profile of the University of Alberta. Notably there was no requirement by the funders to sequence any particular species. I was able to ask the plant science community what the best possible use of these resources would be. The community was in full agreement that the money should be used to sample plant diversity.

Hopefully our work will change the thinking at the funding agencies regarding the value of sequencing biodiversity.

What techniques were utilized in this project to carry out the research?

GW: Complete genomes were too expensive to sequence. Many plants have unusually large genomes and de novo assembly of a polyploid genome remains difficult. To overcome this problem, we sequenced transcriptomes. However, this made our sample collection more difficult as the tissue had to be fresh. In addition, when we started the project, the software to assemble de novo transcriptomes did not work particularly well. I simply made a bet that these problems would be solved by the time we collected the samples and extracted the RNA. For the most part that’s what happened, although we did end up developing our own assembly software as well!

The 1KP initiative is an international consortium. How has the group evolved over time and what benefits have you seen from having this diverse set of skills?

GW: 1KP would not be where it is today without the participation of scientists around the world from many different backgrounds. For example, plant systematists who defined species of interest and provided the tissue samples worked alongside bioinformaticians who analyzed the data, and gene family experts who are now publishing fascinating stories about particular genes.

 DS: One of the great things about this project is how it has evolved over time as new researchers became involved. There is no restriction on who can take part, which species can be studied or which questions can be asked of the data. This makes the 1KP initiative unique compared to more traditionally funded projects.

GW: We continually encouraged others to get involved and mine our data for interesting information. We did a lot of this through word of mouth and ended up with some highly interesting, unexpected discoveries. For example, an optogenetics group at MIT and Harvard used our data to develop new tools for mammalian neurosciences. This really highlights the importance of not restricting the species we study to those of known economic importance.

According to ISI outputs from this research, two of the most highly cited papers from 1KP are here and here.

You aimed to investigate a highly diverse array of plants. How many plants of the major phylogenetic groups have now been sequenced, and are you still working on expanding the data set?

DS: A lot of thought went into the species selection. We aimed for proportional representation (by number of species) of the major plant groups. We also aimed to represent the morphological diversity of those groups.

GW: Altogether, we generated 1345 transcriptomes from 1174 plant species.

Has this project lead to any breakthroughs in our understanding of the phylogeny of plants?

DS: This will be the first broad look at what the nuclear genome has to tell us, and the first meaningful comparison of large nuclear and plastid data sets. However, due to rapid evolution plus extinction, many parts of the plant evolutionary tree remain extremely difficult to solve.

Hornworts are non-vascular plants that grow in damp, humid places. Photo by Jason Hollinger. Used under Creative Commons License 2.0.

Hornworts are non-vascular plants that grow in damp, humid places. Photo by Jason Hollinger. Used under Creative Commons License 2.0.

One significant breakthrough was the discovery of horizontal gene transfer from a hornwort to a group of ferns. This was unexpected and very interesting in terms of the ability of those ferns to be able to accommodate understory habitats.

GW: With regard to horizontal gene transfer, there are papers in the pipeline that will illustrate the discovery of even more of these events in other species. We have also studied gene duplications at the whole genome and gene family level. This is the most comprehensive survey ever undertaken, and people will be surprised at the scale of the discoveries. However, we will be releasing our findings shortly as part of a series and it would be unwise for us to give the story away here! Keep a look out for these!

Cassava brown streak: lessons from the field

This week’s post was written by Katie Tomlinson, a PhD student at the University of Bristol, UK, who spent three months as an intern at the National Crops Resource Research Institute in Uganda. She fills us in on the important research underway at the Institute, and how they communicate their important results to local farmers and benefit rural communities.  

Over the summer, I had a great time at the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) in Uganda. I’m currently in the second year of my PhD at the University of Bristol, UK, where I’m researching how the cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) viruses are able to cause symptoms, replicate and move inside plants. I was lucky enough to be given a placement at NaCRRI as part of the South West Doctoral Training Partnership Professional Internship for PhD Students (PIPS) scheme, to experience the problem for myself, see the disease in the field, meet the farmers affected and investigate the possible solutions.

 

Cassava brown streak disease

Cassava brown streak disease symptoms on tubers. Image credit: Katie Tomlinson.

 

Cassava is a staple food crop for approximately 300 million people in Africa. It is resilient to seasonal drought, can be grown on poor soils and harvested when needed. However, cassava production is seriously threatened by CBSD, which causes yellow patches (chlorosis) to form on leaves and areas of tubers to die (necrosis), rot and become inedible.

Despite being identified in coastal Tanzania 80 years ago, CBSD has only been a serious problem for Uganda in the last 10 years, where it was the most important crop disease in 2014–2015. The disease has since spread across East Africa and threatens the food security of millions of people.

NaCRRI is a government institute, which carries out research to protect and improve the production of key crops, including cassava. The focus is on involving farmers in this process so that the best possible crop varieties and practices are available to them. Communication between researchers and farmers is therefore vital, and it was this that I wanted to assist with.

 

Scoring cassava brown streak disease

Scoring cassava plants for Cassava brown streak symptoms. Image credit: Katie Tomlinson.

 

When I arrived I was welcomed warmly into the root crop team by the team leader Dr Titus Alicai, who came up with a whole series of activities to give me a real insight into CBSD. I was invited to field sites across Uganda, where I got to see CBSD symptoms in the flesh! I helped to collect data for the 5CP project, which is screening different cassava varieties from five East and Southern African countries for CBSD and cassava mosaic disease (CMD) resistance. I helped to score plants for symptoms and was fascinated by the variability of disease severity in different varieties. The main insight I gained is that the situation is both complex and dynamic, with some plants appearing to be disease-free while others were heavily infected. There are also different viral strains found across different areas, and viral populations are also continually adapting. The symptoms also depend on environmental conditions, which are unpredictable.

I also got to see super-abundant whiteflies, which transmit viruses, and understand how their populations are affected by environmental conditions. These vectors are also complex; they are expanding into new areas and responding to changing environmental conditions.

It has been fascinating to learn how NaCRRI is tackling the CBSD problem through screening different varieties in the 5CP project, breeding new varieties in the NEXTGEN cassava project, providing clean planting material and developing GM cassava.

 

Tagging cassava plants

Tagging cassava plants free from Cassava brown streak disease for breeding. Image credit: Katie Tomlinson.

 

And there’s the human element…

In each of these projects, communication with local farmers is crucial. I’ve had the opportunity to meet farmers directly affected, some of whom have all but given up on growing cassava.

 

Challenging communications

Communicating has not been easy, as there are over 40 local languages. I had to adapt and learn from those around me. For example, in the UK we have a habit of emailing everything, whereas in Uganda I had to talk to people to hear about what was going on. This is all part of the experience and something I’ll definitely be brining back to the UK! I’ve had some funny moments too… during harvesting the Ugandans couldn’t believe how weak I was; I couldn’t even cut one cassava open!

 

Real world reflections

I’m going to treasure my experiences at NaCRRI. The insights into CBSD are already helping me to plan experiments, with more real-world applications. I can now see how all the different elements (plant–virus–vector–environment–human) interact, which is something you can’t learn from reading papers alone!

Working with the NaCRRI team has given me the desire and confidence to collaborate with an international team. I’ve formed some very strong connections and hope to have discussions about CBSD with them throughout my PhD and beyond. It’s really helped to strengthen collaborations between our lab work in Bristol and researchers working in the field on the disease frontline. This will help our research to be relevant to the current situation and what is happening in the field.

 

Some of the NaCRRI team

Saying goodbye to new friends: Dr. Titus Alicai (NaCRRI root crops team leader), Phillip Abidrabo (CBSD MSc student) and Dr. Esuma Williams (cassava breeder). Image credit: Katie Tomlinson.