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PROCROP Report Summary

Project ID: 645674
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.3.3.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - PROCROP (Harnessing Plant Reproduction for Crop Improvement)

Reporting period: 2015-02-01 to 2017-01-31

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

The present project will focus on exploring Plant Reproductive Biology in grasses using biological systems including sexual plant models (rice and maize) and sub-tropical and tropical apomictic species (Poa pratensis, Paspalum notatum, Eragrostis curvula, Tripsacum dactyloides). The overarching objective of this proposal, “Plant Reproduction for Crop Improvement (PROCROP)” aims therefore to strengthen research partnership through short period staff exchange and networking activities between European Research organizations and organizations from countries with which the Community shares an S&T agreement. Due to its high economical impact, several research programmes are currently investigating sexual/asexual reproduction and are mainly funded at the national level. This proposal aims at strengthening, and initiating, partnerships between European and Latin-American research groups focussing on either model plants or crops, therefore facilitating interactions between fundamental and applied aspects of plant reproduction research. The number and the expertise of participant groups ensures a multidisciplinary approach that will favour comparative studies and translational research between model species and crop plants.
The research topic of this exchange programme addresses plant reproduction and how its manipulation can contribute to increase crop productivity and quality. Increased productivity through genetic improvement has significantly impacted world agriculture and the world’s population food security. Crop plants have followed the general pattern of introduction, selection, and hybridization. The first step (introduction) has been crucial for world agriculture, because many crops are produced outside their centre of domestication. Once introduced, selection and breeding strategies have led to new cultivars with improved yield and adaptation to environmental conditions and human needs.
Unfortunately, many target traits are typically polygenic, and assembling and maintaining the most favourable allelic combinations into elite genotypes require the implementation of complex, time-consuming and usually expensive procedures. The fixation of any given genotype occurs naturally in species that reproduce through apomixis, an asexual (i.e., clonal) type of seed production.
Therefore, the main goal of this proposal is to investigate the mechanisms reshaping transcriptomic landscapes for installing apomixis in sexual grasses. Many approaches have identified extensive lists of expressed genes but which ones are the triggers (vs. the downstream targets) is still unknown. Due to the rapid advances in plant genomics, the participants have collectively identified candidate genes/pathways for apomixis and this proposal is designed to narrow down candidates and resolve molecularly the pivotal components required for apomixis technology. More specifically, we believe that the expertise and the materials assembled into this partnership will allow in-depth comparative analyses and, ultimately, the identification of key molecular components for assembling apomixis in a sexual plant.

Work performed from the beginning of the project to the end of the period covered by the report and main results achieved so far

The objective of this action is to extend our knowledge on the molecular basis of apomixis in the gramineae and generate tools for harnessing this trait for the benefit of agriculture. The role of putative master genes in determining the switch between sexuality and apomixis is being validated in the species available from the PROCROP partners. A final comprehensive model will thus be drawn from the integration of PROCROP experimental data.
During this first term of the project, a website ( meant to contain all the information about the project, the partners and the deliverables was constructed (D1.1). Several meetings were carried out, in order to establish and control the development of the work. A kick off conference was conducted in Milano (D1.2) in order to outline the list of activities and secondments. Then, most of the involved participants met again at Montpellier during the EU mid-term evaluation meeting. Finally, we organized a meeting in Argentina involving some of the beneficiaries (IRD, UMIL and UNIPG) participating together with the CONICET people. The meeting included also a 3 days of seminars (program attached at the end of this report).
The work conducted in the first term of the project (2015-2016) was aimed at: completing the sequencing and bioinformatics analysis of the sexual and apomictic floral transcriptomes from Poa pratensis (Illumina), Paspalum notatum (454) and Eragrostis curvula (454) (D2.1); elaborating a list of candidate genes differentially represented or displaying splice variants in the sexual and apomictic floral transcriptomes of P. pratensis, P. notatum and E. curvula (D2.2); identifying miRNAs presenting differential activity in flowers of sexual and apomictic plants of P. notatum and E. curvula (D2.3); detecting mRNAs controlled by silencing mechanisms in sexual and apomictic plants of P. notatum and E. curvula (D2.3); identifying novel predicted miRNAs in sexual and apomictic P. notatum and E. curvula genotypes (D2.3); identifying transcripts and miRNAs differentially expressed in flowers of apomictic and sexual E. curvula genotypes under control and water stress conditions (D2.1, D2.2, D2.3); carrying out an MSAP wide genome methylation analysis in apomictic and sexual P. notatum genotypes, which led to the identification of one candidate gene (Pn-SCD1) epigenetically regulated in the nucellus of apomictic plants just before the onset of aposporous initials (D2.4); conducting an analysis of the RdDM pathway activity in ovules of Eragrostis curvula (D2.4); performing wide genome sequencing of Paspalum notatum by using Illumina (the raw data generated will be used in the next term to assemble the Paspalum notatum genome sequence) (D3.1 and D3.2); analyzing genes located within the ASR and expressed in the P. notatum libraries (D3.2); obtaining a mapping population of E. curvula phenotyped by reproductive mode (D3.2); identifying several developmental routes with different activity in apomictic and sexual plants (D4.1); starting functional analysis of selected candidate genes.

Progress beyond the state of the art and expected potential impact (including the socio-economic impact and the wider societal implications of the project so far)

The results presented in this project involve an unprecedented development of molecular data and tools aimed at the harnessing of apomixis for the benefit of agriculture. The ability to produce genetically uniform progeny via seeds is of significant value for its potential in agriculture to fix complex favorable genotypes, particularly hybrids expressing heterosis or obtained from wide crosses. It can be harnessed to improve breeding programs efficiency in the context of rapidly evolving environmental and social constraints, consequently promoting seed marketing. In fact, the use of apomixis is currently having direct consequences on the breeding of natural apomictic forage grasses of the Brachiaria and Paspalum genera, allowing a significant increase in cattle production in tropical and sub-tropical areas of the Americas. However, major food crops such as maize, rice and wheat are not naturally apomictic and attempts to introduce the trait from wild relatives remain unsuccessful.
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