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Expressed sequences (EST) as tags for functional genes for genetic characterisation of flowering woody ornamental shrubs from an oriental origin

Final Report Summary - FORESTFLOWERS (Expressed sequences (EST) as tags for functional genes for genetic characterisation of flowering woody ornamental shrubs from an oriental origin)

Genetic resources of ornamental plants are in general poorly covered by international co-operation initiatives for characterisation and protection of (wild) germplasm. However, a well-considered application of these genetic resources e.g. in breeding is the best guarantee for a sustained conservation. In the ForESTflowers project we focused on flowering woody ornamental shrubs from an oriental origin, more specific on Rhododendron, Camellia, Hydrangea and Paeonia. These species are hardly covered by directed breeding programmes, both public and private, but have evolved over the last centuries in Europe into an adapted gene pool of cultivars and hybrids by the action of many, merely anonymous gardeners, horticulturists and amateurs. Both in Europe as in the countries of origin, research is initiated for these species. However, joint actions are hampered by different facts:
1. It often concerns small research projects, initiated and financed from diverse initiatives;
2. Research priorities differ e.g. in Europe breeding and cultivation, in Asia preservation and characterisation of local genetic resources;
3. Being part of the cultural heritage or gardening practice already for long times, it are not fancy plants for researchers with a life science background;
4. Networking among researchers and exchange of plant material, knowledge and skills are limited by distance, language and cultural barriers;
5. An intrinsic “driver” to bring the research at a higher level is missing because of the scattered critical minimal mass.
The main objective of the project was to re-establish the link between Europe and the East. Partners involved cover important ornamental production areas in Europe (Belgium, region of Gent; Italy, region around the North-Italian lakes; France, region of Angers) and focuses on China and Japan as being important for native plant genetic resources and as well-established centres of competence for research in flowering woody ornamentals. The exchange program supported to provide common tools for the characterisation and application of interesting plant genetic resources for plant breeding purposes. The study of expressed sequences (EST) as tags for functional genes hooks up this ambition to the current state-of-the-art research in plant sciences.
The working program combined 4 working packages that are oriented towards a specific species (Rhododendron, Camellia, Hydrangea and Paeonia) and working package WP5 that supported the former, integrating approaches that could be generic for all species.

During the 4 years of the project every year a general working visit to one of the participating countries was organised (2012: Belgium, 2013: China, 2014: Italy and 2015: Japan). The aims of these visits were, apart from project management and integration, mainly to become acquainted with the local ornamental plant production and to discover the natural growing habitats of the different plants species. Both Japan and China hosted impressive collections of germplasm in situ and in botanical gardens, while in EU countries large historical collections are present.
In total 54 secondments took place. Eight of these secondments were a long period exchange (more than 3 months). Especially in these long term exchanges researchers collaborate intensively on the specific tasks of the technical work packages. The goal of the short secondments was mainly to get technical training on specific techniques, collection of germplasm, discussion on data collection or discussions on future collaboration.

The main results of the project are:
- Strengthening of existing scientific collaboration between the research groups involved
- Development of specific datasets of EST-markers for the different species involved in the project
- Exchange of genetic resources between research groups (plant material, DNA or mycorrhiza)
- Technical training of both junior and senior researchers
- Set up of new scientific collaboration between research institutes (Belgium-China-Belgium, Belgium-Japan, France-China and Italy-Japan). This will results in new joint PhDs in future.
- Results of the scientific collaborations were presented at different workshops and symposia. Three international symposia were organised by the partners involved (Symposium on woody ornamentals, Hydrangea symposium and Eucarpia section ornamentals symposium)
- Several scientific publications

The project has had a clear impact on the research activities of both the European and Asian partners on the specific ornamentals. New collaborations had been set up and existing ones were strengthened. Also at the end of the project the mutual collaboration will be continued by i.e. PhD students. In Europe especially, in Belgium and Italy, the project results are also incorporated in the on going breeding research specifically in Rhododendron and Camellia. The project aldo contributed to the sustainable use of biodiversity and helps to the in situ conservation of genetic resources for the 4 species studied. By studying the biodiversity with the use of molecular tools and morphological characterisation of germplasm the added value of the germplasm can be evaluated. The scientific results generated during the project clearly demonstrated the added value of the genetic resources for the breeding programs in the different species.