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ExpoSEED Report Summary

Project ID: 691109
Funded under: H2020-EU.1.3.3.

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - ExpoSEED (Exploring the molecular control of seed yield in crops)

Reporting period: 2016-01-01 to 2017-12-31

Summary of the context and overall objectives of the project

ExpoSEED represents an international and inter-sectoral consortium composed of nine partners spread all over the word: Mexico, Argentina, Italy, Spain, Holland, Germany, Japan and Australia. These partners share the scientific interest of addressing food security with scientific basis; research activities, secondments of staff members and dissemination events are planned within the Action.

ExpoSEED aims to integrate forward and reverse genetic approaches to dissect the molecular mechanisms that control yield in model species and to transfer the acquired knowledge to selected
cereals as wheat and barley. The identification of “molecular hubs” that determine seed number and size will put the basis for the development of breeding tools to improve seed production at the beginning of the seed market. Research on model species has recently allowed to identify key factors that regulate plant reproduction together with exploring the conservation of the molecular mechanisms that finally control the plant fitness in distantly related species. The next challenge is now to deeper dissect the molecular networks controlled by these key factors to finally manipulate agronomic traits. The partners of ExpoSEED will identify the targets of key factors in model species as Arabidopsis and rice and they will transfer this knowledge to crops, as wheat and barley.
Candidate genes will be further characterized using genetic and cell-biology tools together with searching new alleles in large panel of wild and cultivated germplasm. As a parallel approach, germplasm collections and segregating populations will be used for mapping studies to identify novel factors controlling seed yield in cereals. ExpoSEED aims to create synergies to efficiently address scientific and societal issues. From the scientific perspective, now is the right moment: many completed crop genome sequences and novel genetic and cell biology tools will support the comparative biology approaches aimed in this project. Considering the societal issue, food security is a worldwide priority: in the context of population growth and less arable land, increasing food production is one of the challenges for this century.

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

ExpoSEED is composed of six work packages, WP2, WP3, WP4 and WP5 are focused on scientific aspects, WP1 is entirely dedicated to the coordination and management of the Action while WP6 develops training and dissemination activities. The scientific activities all converge on WP4, as represented in the attached images.

WP2 exploits a reverse genetics approach (from the candidate gene to phenotype) to identify key factors that control yield, in terms of seed number and size, in model species as Arabidopsis and rice. The information gained on model species are tested and transferred to cereals as wheat and barley. During the reporting period the partners identified transcription factors that act as master regulators in controlling branching and carpel differentiation. Since it is well known that TFs can regulate molecular cascades, the partners have then focused their work on the identification of genes that are targets of the selected TFs. This approach led to a more detailed description of the molecular pathways that control specific developmental stages with determinant effects on yield. Interestingly, strong interconnections with auxin and cytokinin metabolism have been described. Part of the information gained on model species, together with the identification of novel pathways controlling kernel formation, have been transferred to crop species in order to identify key genes that can be manipulated to increase yield in the very next future.

WP3 is strongly interconnected with WP2 and it is based on the observation that genetic variability can be exploited to search for novel functional alleles in the selected candidate genes. During the reporting period this approach is mainly performed in cereals, wheat and barley than in rice and Arabidopsis. The main reason for this strategy is that advanced molecular tools as genome editing are now permitting to obtain desired novel alleles especially in model species.

WP5 represents a complementary approach, named forward genetics (from the phenotype to the causal genes), that is expected to lead to the identification of novel factors that will be characterized within WP4. This strategy is only performed on crops, rice, wheat and barley and it is based on the observation of specific phenotypes. Once a phenotype, for instance high yield, is detected in germplasm collections or in populations, statistical analysis is performed to identify the genetic locus correlated with the selected phenotype. Barley, durum wheat and bread wheat collections are under analysis in different growing conditions to identify genotypes specifically adapted to the selected environment. QTL analysis or GWAS approaches are then performed to identify the combination of genetic loci conferring the better plant performance.

Finally, WP4 collects the information from the other WPs, promising candidate genes (WP2), alleles (WP3) and genetic loci (WP5) are characterized from a functional point of view. To do this, the partners use a wide varieties of techniques (Detailed expression profile studies, protein-protein and protein-DNA interaction experiments, development of mutant lines, microscopy analysis) to finally describe the precise function of selected genes. In this context, the partners are studying the role of specific transcription factors in Arabidopsis and rice, hormones in all the species and carrier proteins in wheat and barley.

Altogether, the ExpoSEED’s WPs and the collaboration between the partners is expanding the knowledge on the mechanisms that control different aspects, all related to yield determination in model and crop species. Specific value is added to the Action through the secondments between staff members, this is indeed expanding the knowledge and techniques exploited in each laboratory to reach specific aims.

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 main progresses beyond the state of the art are related to the scientific knowledge that the partners are producing but also to the exploitation of novel techniques that are available within the consortium.
During the reporting period, the cooperation between the partners is producing more details (i.e identification of genes and description of networks) that are permitting to select critical factors controlling i) branching in rice, ii) carpel differentiation and ovule formation in Arabidopsis iii) hormones crosstalk in Arabidopsis and wheat and iv) sugar metabolism in barley and wheat.

Expanding the look beyond the scientific results; the keyword within the Action is food security. The results that ExpoSEED is getting from the experimental strategies will add important levels of information to be exploited to finally reach food security; it is unpredictable now whether this will be fundamental data for basic research or new varieties as pre-breeding tools.

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