A striking global outlook change that manifested during the last decade is the reality of a changing climate and uncertainty of future. Sustainability and resilience are among the top priorities in plant science today, and for a reason. Despite that plants are master adapters to harsh environments and diseases through evolution and selection, this constellation does not apply to our food producing crops within an accelerated climate change frame. Thus, methods and knowledge of molecular mechanisms by which we can feasibly engineer our crops to meet these future challenges are urgently needed. Within this large global sustainability purpose, our predicted way to essential discoveries lies within the largely unknown lives of viruses and more precisely how they have learned through their amazing capacity for evolution to engineer their plant host. In particular, we hope that our focus on viral manipulations of plant resilience mechanisms may pave the way to climate, disease and virus resilient crops.
Most of our food comes from only a dozen of plants, making our food system highly vulnerable to plant pests, diseases and climate change. In nature, there are thousands of plants with potential to be part of a future diverse and resilient agriculture, but many of them contain unpleasant compounds. In Back to the Future, I will bring from the past and develop the wild plant Chenopodium album as a new crop. Its seeds have high protein content and were eaten in Denmark during prehistorical times, but contain bitter and anti-nutritional chemical compounds called saponins. I have established a unique collection of C. album from all over Denmark and characterized their protein and saponin contents. In Back to the Future, I will combine the latest molecular, agricultural and food sciences and technologies to understand the molecular basis of saponin biosynthesis, its bitterness and plant domestication to develop C. album into a valuable plant for future food security.
Agriculture is the most impactful human activity, inevitably leading to environmental issues. One such crisis is the unprecedented rate at which we deplete our arable lands by growing crops without restoring soils. The trends of soil loss threaten our food security and, to preserve lands, we must transition to a more “circular” agriculture, which returns nutrients to the field. In nature, specialised decomposers implement circularity by recycling organic matter. Among them, earthworms, one of the most abundant animal groups, are pivotal. However, since they hide below ground, scientists only know them very little. This project will finally open the black box by developing modern and original tools, based on sensors and artificial intelligence, that uncover the behaviour and ecology of earthworms. Understanding these cryptic creatures in depth will allow us to best utilise their agricultural services while protecting these key players to preserve and restore our soils.
Fungal diseases devastate crops worldwide and challenge global food security. They are unpredictable and difficult to manage, which is exacerbated by climate change. Cereal staple crops are strongly affected by Fusarium species, which both decrease yields and introduce harmful toxins to infected grain. The main toxin, DON, can be detoxified by plants, sometimes contributing to resistance to the fungi, but the detoxification can be unstable in the guts of humans and animals that may still suffer adverse effects from eating infected grain. A new mechanism for Fusarium resistance via DON detoxification was recently discovered in a wild grass, but it is unknown if it is stable. The key hypothesis of CerealGSTs is that GST mediated detoxification indeed can lead to stable DON inactivation and that especially oat is a promising source of new genomic tools to achieve this. The aim is to identify the involved genes and provide sustainable solutions to improve global food security and safety.
Faba bean is a protein crop with high yield potential that thrives in cold, northern climates. It seeds accumulate high levels of protein, antioxidants, and micronutrients making it an ideal crop for inclusion in plant-based food systems in Scandinavia. However, faba bean seeds also accumulate high levels of condensed tannins and phytic acid, which are anti-nutrients that have a negative impact on the uptake of proteins and micronutrients. NutriFaba will characterize the biochemical pathways producing these anti-nutrients throughout seed development. We will then use biotechnological approaches to reduce the anti-nutrient levels in seeds without affecting the antioxidant capacity or the agronomic performance. In summary, NutriFaba will push the boundaries of faba bean anti-nutrient research and help develop highly nutritious varieties that will take part in the sustainable food systems of the future.
Soils not only provide the basis for human life, soils are also important to meet climate mitigation and biodiversity goals at regional, and even global scales. To reach these goals soil organic carbon plays a central role. For the storage and stability of soil carbon, plants and their roots are an important regulating factor. This regulation is based on the complex interplay of plant roots, soil microorganisms and soil particles. Although we know of the importance of roots, we still do not fully understand how plant root characteristics, for instance root length or chemical composition, affect the stability of soil carbon and the release of greenhouse gases. We also still lack an understanding of the underlying processes between plants, microorganisms and soil particles. The project will provide both, the fundamental scientific understanding of how plant roots regulate soil carbon storage and greenhouse gas emissions, and practical proxies to be used in future agricultural management to sustain healthy and productive soils.
Proteins from pea seeds could be a future source of a balanced, more sustainable plant-based nutrition. To reach this goal, alternatives for typical food products of animal origin need to be developed. While proteins in animals are abundant in fluids, and thus ready to be processed, plants store proteins mainly in compact and dry conditions in grains, which makes fluid processing complicated. This project aims for an understanding how to in a first step optimize the extraction of proteins from the grains without destroying their structure, so that in a second step structures with desired properties can be formed. Typical examples would include novel plant-based food products with similar resemblance and mouth feel as dairy products. We will combine special solvents for grain dissolution with advanced characterization methods, to understand the principles of structure formation. We will use established concepts from soft materials to guide our investigations towards future food products.
Grain legumes are crops with excellent dietary characteristics as a remarkably high level of protein and fibre. Legumes also increase the amount of nitrogen in soil available for subsequent crops, thereby reducing mineral fertilization and emission of greenhouse gases. These unique characteristics are provided by their ability to establish symbiotic interactions with soil nitrogen-fixing bacteria which convert plant-inaccessible atmospheric nitrogen into plant-available ammonia. Despite the fact that improvement of nitrogen fixation is an ultimate goal of symbiosis research, as the most important aspect for agriculture, relatively little is known about the mechanisms controlling symbiotic efficiency. The aim of this proposal is to discover plant defence-related mechanisms with new and specific roles in regulation of nitrogen fixation, which modification or removal has the potential to enhance the symbiotic performance of legume crops.
Phytophthora infestans causes late blight disease on potato and is controlled by heavy fungicide spraying, raising environmental concerns. Thus, there is an urgent need to develop alternative means for late blight control. RNA interference (RNAi) is a conserved cellular defense mechanism mediated by double-stranded RNA (dsRNA) and small RNAs (sRNA) that target specific messenger RNAs for destruction, thereby regulating protein expression. This project builds on our recent discovery that spraying plant surfaces with dsRNAs that target essential P. infestans genes can confer efficient protection against late blight disease. Also called spray-induced gene silencing (SIGS), this strategy is environmentally friendly. We aim to understand how small RNAs are transported during P. infestans infection of potato and to use this knowledge to improve SIGS to control late blight disease. The research question addressed in this proposal is novel and will significantly increase our knowledge of the role of RNAi gene-silencing in plant disease.