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"The NAtive Seed Science, TEchnology and Conservation Initial Training Network"

Final Report Summary - NASSTEC (The NAtive Seed Science, TEchnology and Conservation Initial Training Network)

NAtive Seed Science, TEchnology and Conservation (NASSTEC) Initial Training Network (ITN) is part of the European Union Framework Program 7 People-Work initiative. This aims to develop and consolidate the European Research Area (ERA) by strengthening the human potential of the research and technology infrastructure, particularly through Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions. These Actions enable researchers in the public and private sectors (SMEs) to work individually, and as a network, to ensure the implementation of knowledge between commercial-academic- and non-governmental organisations.
In the case of NASSTEC, trans- and inter-disciplinary research, training, career development and knowledge sharing aimed to significantly enhance our understand and capacities for applied ecology for conservation and restoration efforts which used seeds of wild or ‘native’ plant species in endangered grassland environments. The use of native species is highly significant, since this sought to avoid the risk of invasion posed by use of non-native plant species. NASSTEC applied this approach in an “ecological-‘ or ‘ecosystems-based context’. That is, we took into account environmental factors such as soil, water and socioeconomic attributes, in addition to the plant biology based variables.
Thus, native species have a high potential to restoration of degraded environments based on their capacity to persist and mitigate the negative impacts of land-uses such as mining, construction, tourism and agriculture. Also, to offset the impact of natural events too, like wild fires and drought for example. In this way, NASSTEC sought to demonstrate the utility to naïve seed-based restoration efforts to preserve system functions such as soil, water and aesthetic qualities, and well as maximising plant and associated biodiversity.
Industry-academic collaborations support significant national commercial markets for native-plants and -seeds with a value estimated at $ 250 million a year for the USA and Australia (combined). However, the European native seed market has remained largely underdeveloped, mainly due to the existence of only a few small-scale operations that tend to operate independently. These commercial operations are largely detached from the academic sector, and many lack the baseline knowledge and capacities to gather the ecological data for key species of interest. Consequently, this European market is less than 2% of that of the USA and Australia. Through interactions with SMEs, NASSTEC had the objective of contributing to the European bio-economy by laying the foundation for an expansion of the emerging European native seed production industries. NASSTEC supported this objective by building interdisciplinary networks, providing trained seed technologists and developing robust quality assurance systems, the later extending to include improving methods for seed quality assessment and certification.
NASSTEC delivered a comprehensive and international scientific networks and research programmes on fundamental and applied aspects of native species seed biology. NASSTEC interconnected four leading academic institutions, with experience in seed science and plant biodiversity, with three private companies as full partners: (ACADEMIC) Museo delle Scienze, Trento, Italy; Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, UK; University of Pavia, Italy; James Hutton Institute, UK; (INDUSTRY) Scotia Seeds, UK; Semillas Silvestres, Spain; Syngenta, Netherlands. In addition, specialist input on restoration ecology, plant production, diagnostic science, and land management was provided by five associate partners: Botanic Gardens and Parks Authority. Australia; Jardín Botánico Atlántico, Spain; Mylnefield Research Services, UK; National Trust for Scotland, UK, and Provincia Autonoma di Trento, Italy. All partners facilitated mobility within the network and knowledge was acquired from and shared with market leaders in US and Australia. In this way specific expertise, technology and the native seed trade in Europe was stimulated.
The inter-disciplinary nature of NASSTEC enabled the establishment of a high profile European doctorate in the area of seed research for native species at the University of Pavia, Italy, within the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences. NASSTEC trained 1 Experienced Researcher (ER) and 11 Early Stage Researchers (ESRs). Nine of the ESRs submitted their PhD theses within 35 months of starting, with successful defences three months later following evaluation by an independent commission of nine members. One other PhD thesis is with the Examination Board of the University of Pavia and the final thesis is in preparation. Beyond this primary source of teaching and learning, all partners supported the delivery of four workshops (plant molecular diversity; IPR and patenting; education and outreach; and industrial seed production) and two summer schools (seed collection; and seed germination). ESRs also spent up to three months each year in partner research laboratories (academic and industry); and actively engaged in outreach activities.
By the end of the project 8 ESRs and the ER had 12 papers accepted and / or published in 10 different journals including: Conservation Letters; Restoration Ecology; Frontiers in Plant Science; Plant Cell Reports; Sustainability; Seed Science and Technology; Plant Biology; Ecology and Evolution; Alpine Biology; and, Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment. Thus, the NASSTECs impact is already reaching a very wide science and technology audience. Thirteen more manuscripts are currently in preparation or under review with journals. Overall, all ESRs and the ER will have submitted their work to international peer-reviewed journals. In addition, ESRs/ER wrote 12 magazine or web articles to institution such as Seed Testing International and the Society for Ecological Restoration-International Network for Seed Based Restoration. The students also contributed to 13 educational events which included The Mediterranean Garden Society, ‘Plantsmanship’ course of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, Spanish Landscape Architects, and Seminaro de Proyectos en el Banco Mundial de Germoplasma de Olivo de Córdoba y los Ensayos de Olivar en Seto, Universidad de Córdoba, Rabanales. This was achieved in addition to contributing to two TV and radio programmes, delivering 13 posters and 28 oral presentations at international congresses in Europe (Italy, Germany, UK) and further afield (Brazil, China, USA).
By early 2018, seven or the eleven ESRs had secured post-doctoral positions in a range of organisations across Europe and in the USA. The positions were: Researchers at Aberdeen University and James Hutton Institute, Scotland; Contract Researcher at the University of Pavia, Italy; native plant material specialist at the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation/ Pollinator programme, USA; Research Consultant at Brunswick University, Canada; Researcher at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv), Leipzig; Technology Specialist at Syngenta Seeds, Enkhuizen, Netherlands; and, as researcher at the University of Catania, Italy. Appointments had been made within three at NASSTEC partners (Univ Pavia, Syngenta, and James Hutton Institute), demonstrating the importance of skills training within the NASSTEC partnership too.
In terms of its organisational structure, the NASSTEC research and training framework comprised three sub-programmes: A - In situ seed sampling – providing essential training in plant taxonomy, ecology and reproductive plant biology. Outcome: the selection of species for mitigation projects was enabled with a focus on Alpine, Atlantic, Continental and Mediterranean grassland habitats; B - Seed biology characterisation - developing skills in native seed physiology (germination and storage) and stress tolerance. Outcome: functional and genetic data was generated and used to match seed lots to specific degraded environments for improvement; C - Production and deployment of seed - transferring knowledge on the means of improving seed quality (performance) to the nascent industrial sector (SMEs) for native seed production. Outcome: the conversion rate from native seed to plant was enabled, that is we increased efficiency in the use of native plant genetic resources. Collectively, the work programmes allowed links to be made between the source environment of the seed (physiology, biochemistry) and whole plant characteristics. Critically, the work revealed the extent of diversity within plant species, such that the best ‘fit-for-purpose’ types could be sourced, selected and used. Unlike in crop breeding, such techniques have not been used previously by the producers of European native species’ seed to protect or improve ecosystem functions for the agriculture, horticulture, conservation and restoration industries. NASSTEC has uniquely benefitted companies, institutions and human potential in the ERA.

Contact details:
Trento Science Museum
Corso del lavoro e della scienza, 3
38122 Trento (Italy)
Tel. +39 0461 270 311