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Boosting Crop Growth using Natural Product and Synthesis Enabled Solar Harvesting

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - BoostCrop (Boosting Crop Growth using Natural Product and Synthesis Enabled Solar Harvesting)

Reporting period: 2019-01-01 to 2019-12-31

A major challenge in the twenty-first century is to increase global food production to feed a continuously growing population while the quality and quantity of arable land is diminishing. Central to this problem is the necessity to increase the yield of numerous important crop species and to find ways to extend geographical locations suitable for agriculture. Cold stress is an environmental extreme that hampers crop yield. Low temperatures restrict plant growth and development, while frost causes tissue damage. Yield losses are even more severe when cold stress occurs during the reproductive stage. Breeding programs for new tolerant varieties are diverse and usually tailored to the specific needs of a particular crop. The plant's response to cold stress, however, is complex, involving many physiological, structural, and biochemical changes, which interact with other environmental factors and metabolic processes. BoostCrop represents a novel approach to improve crop yields by protecting plants from cold stress and stimulating their growth under a range of growing conditions. The invention is based on 'molecular heaters'; nature-inspired molecules that absorb light of energies that are either harmful to the plant or not used in photosynthesis, and converting this light energy to heat.

BoostCrop’s long-term vision is to develop a suite of molecules for localised heat generation for Food Security. The entirely novel and ambitious research programme of BoostCrop, which surpasses substantially any technological paradigms currently in existence, employs a bottom-up approach to engineer light-to-molecule heaters to optimise the absorption of selected components of the solar spectrum. In so doing, the ‘holy grail’ of BoostCrop is to use these revolutionary light-to-molecule heaters in a foliar spray to enhance crop growth at low temperature and high ultraviolet exposure, enhance crop yield at high crop density (conditions which result in a reduced ratio of red to far red wavelengths; low R:FR), and concomitantly reduce greenhouse energy costs. To achieve this vision, BoostCrop brings together a team of scientists with expertise in broad areas of the physical and biosciences. The radically-new science-enabled technology that the project will engender involves: (1) Guiding the flow of photon energy in molecules; and (2) Utilising this energy to combat continual European and Global challenges, first and foremost, in sustainable Food production, as well as improvements in both Healthcare and clean Energy production. The combined efforts of the BoostCrop Team , which combines the expertise of 6 participant universities with 13 university based lead investigators, one government institute with one section leader, one SME with two group leaders (see Section 4) and encompasses the 3 major disciplines of Chemistry, Physics, Biology, to create a highly efficient, environmentally friendly and affordable foliar spray for crop growth enhancement and thus sustainable Food Security.
BoostCrop overall aims and research efforts are split into work packages (WPs) 1-6. Here are the main results from each of these WPs from the beginning of the project to the end of this reported period.

WP1 consists of synthesizing - through sustainable processes – and characterizing (e.g. NMR, FTIR, UV-vis, HRMS, DPPH) two families of 'molecular heaters', one being sinapoyl malate analogues (SMs) and the other being diketopyrrolopyrrole analogues (DPPs).
As of today, we have been able to constitute a library of more than 60 compounds. It is noteworthy to mention that all the synthetic procedures have been validated at the gram scale, thus allowing us to send gram samples of all the compounds to the consortium partners for further testing

WP2 involves the study of these molecules through state-of-the-art experiments to understand the light-molecule interactions that change their efficacy as a 'molecular heaters. We have been able to understand key relaxation pathways in a number of our model molecules. Some show very good characteristics and some only suitable characteristics. Further studies to help us understand how we can manipulate these relaxation characterics (with the aid of WP3) will help inform the synthesis of new molecules for WP1

The goal of WP3 is to develop models for nonadiabatic excited-state dynamics as well as to perform electronic structure calculations in the gas phase and complex environments of the candidate chromophores to better understand their photophysics and photochemistry. These calculations are run in synergy with the experiments carried out by the coworkers on WP1 and WP2.The starting point encompassed static electronic calculations of absorption and emission spectra, critical points, and reaction pathways of some promising candidate molecules. These calculations successfully fulfil our first milestone! Additionally, they pave the way for future work - critically, we are able to predict photophysics and photochemistry of synthesised molecules to inform WP1 before they begin further work.

WP4 concerns the thermal imaging, by-product and toxicity analysis of our molecules. We have successfully demonstrated that a significant thermal increase to both plant and leaf, occur following application of the molecule and under UV-A/B radiation. Initial screening of candidate molecules for potential toxicity using in silico methods indicate that non of our molecules should exhibit mutagenicity or carcinogenicity. Further in vitro cytotoxicity tests using human hepatic have also show that 2 of our candidate molecule have very low levels of toxicity. By-product analysis has been successfully completed for a number of candidate molecules - now identified, the fragments/products can be further analysed using the in silico and in vitro tests above.
Agriculture is a crucially important subject for the EU (and Globally): almost 40% of the annual EU budget is spent on agriculture (www.europa.eu/european-union/about-eu/money). The world-wide market for agrochemicals in 2015 was estimated to be €179 Billion, of which Europe accounts 11%, while the US (59%) and Asia (22%) dominate the market (www.marketsandmarkets.com). Clearly, there is lots of room for the EU to improve its Global leadership in this sector. Cold and freezing stress are important constraints for crop and horticulture. BoostCrop's invention on 'molecular heaters' to increase crop yield during cold stress, to extend growth seasons, to expand the geographical locations suitable for agriculture (e.g. to higher altitude) and to increase crop yield at high crop density, will have a major impact, globally. In addition, the envisioned reduction in greenhouse energy costs would be immense; an industry-sized greenhouse with a surface coverage of 40000 sq. ft., would result in a saving of ~€3k (per month) on heating. This estimate assumes propane as fuel to maintain a greenhouse at 17 ºC, with an average outside temperature of 0 ºC, and molecular heaters achieving a (not unrealistic) 3 ºC temperature rise.
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