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CropStrengthen Report Summary

Project ID: 642901
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.3.1.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - CropStrengthen (Genetic and molecular priming approaches to increase crop strength and stress tolerance)

Reporting period: 2015-01-01 to 2016-12-31

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

CropStrengthen provides advanced systems biology training for 5 young researchers who will develop novel methods for increasing crop strength and resistance to stress by alternative genetic and genomic, non-GMO technologies. This involves the following approaches: (1) Selecting allelic variants of a novel gene identified by members of the consortium which regulates oxidative and abiotic stress tolerance, and (2) Molecular priming by biostimulants or low doses of hydrogen peroxide to induce stress-protective mechanisms in crops.
This dual approach will meet the growing EU push towards secure, sustainable and safe means of food production. The genetic approaches are combined with high-throughput technologies for transcriptome, metabolome, and phenotype analyses, combined with advanced bioinformatics. Both approaches to increasing crop yield are growing in importance, with the biostimulants industry expected to reach $2.2B globally by 2018.
Training will be conducted at the University of Potsdam (Coordinator), Germany, and two companies: BioAtlantis Ltd., Ireland, and Enza Zaden R&D B.V., The Netherlands.

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

Recently, members of the consortium identified an Arabidopsis mutant (dubbed atr7) which shows a remarkable tolerance to oxidative stress (Mehterov, N. et al. (2012) Oxidative stress provokes distinct transcriptional responses in the stress-tolerant atr7 and stress-sensitive loh2 Arabidopsis thaliana mutants as revealed by multi-parallel quantitative real-time PCR analysis of ROS marker and antioxidant genes. Plant Physiology and Biochemistry 59, 20–9). However, the cellular mechanisms through which the ATR7 protein controls the response to oxidative stress is not well known yet; unravelling this is a task of the CropStrengthen consortium.
To decode the ATR7-mediated control mechanisms, complementary approaches were chosen, including proteomics to identify proteins interacting with ATR7, a detailed phenotypic and molecular characterization of ATR7 transgenic plants, and functional studies on selected ATR7-related genes. The consortium already succeeded in establishing a number of genetically altered plants that will allow studying processes controlled by ATR7.
Studies to enhance the tolerance to abiotic stresses of important vegetable crops by modulating ATR7 levels were started by complementing Arabidopsis plants with ATR7-like genes from diverse crops. In addition, mutant collections of lettuce (Lactuca sativa) were screened for altered tolerance to reactive oxygen species (ROS); and ROS stress assays were performed with wild accessions of tomato (Solanum lycopersium) and lettuce, and relatives.
We furthermore started to investigate molecular priming of tomato and Arabidopsis using the seaweed-based biostimulant Super Fifty® by testing mitigation of abiotic and oxidative stresses. This research will help us to develop new procedures for enhancing the tolerance of vegetable crops to such abiotic stresses.
Finally, bioinformatic analyses are performed to identify genes similar to ATR7 in different crops, to identify stress-related genes commonly regulated in different crops, and to identify metabolic stress signatures and specific metabolites altered in abundance during different stresses.

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)

CropStrengthen employs modern molecular biological and genomics research to understand how biostimulants enhance the resilience of crops against abiotic stresses and therefore will provide new knowledge for breeding of more tolerant plants, a highly relevant goal in agriculture for food and feed production.
The ESRs get excellent theoretical education and practical training in a broad spectrum of biological disciplines, including molecular genetics, transcriptomics, metabolomics, gene expression analysis, abiotic stress physiology, crop growth and physiology, plant breeding and screening, bioinformatics, statistics and experimental design. ESRs develop the right combination of research-related and transferable competences which is increasingly required in industrial settings.
CropStrengthen enhances transnational cooperation and creates strong relationships between the participating organisations, namely the University of Potsdam and the companies BioAtlantis Ltd. and Enza Zaden R&D B.V. Both, BA and EZ have a strong research focus with superb technical expertise allowing them to participate in the doctoral training. Both companies appoint and host the ESRs during secondments. Throughout the project run time both companies contribute to the doctoral program by supervising the young researchers and enhancing their skills, for example with respect to statistics, experimental design, writing of publications for peer review, presentation skills, project planning, exploitation and commercialization of research methods and results, intellectual property rights, and legal and regulatory issues.

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