Scientists from Bayer CropScience and the research institute VIB-UGent, Belgium, have started a collaboration to develop crops with higher yields and improved tolerance to stresses such as drought or soil salinity.
In a first project, researchers will look at epigenetic differences between different crop varieties as a basis for selection of new characteristics.
In a second project, scientists will computationally analyze the genes that are involved in the response of plants to high-stress situations such as drought. Both research projects are supported financially by the IWT - the national agency for the promotion of innovation by science and technology in Flanders, Belgium. The study results will be published in leading scientific journals.
Epigenetics is a natural phenomenon that is used by plants and animals to regulate how hereditary material is read and used, for example as a response to drought. Depending on external factors, such as long periods of drought, genes causing the plant response are activated to a greater or lesser extent from the DNA. These changes are passed on to progeny, even though they are not stored in the DNA sequence.
"With the new joint-research project, we aim to develop epigenetic control as a new molecular tool for the improvement of agricultural crops", said Johan Botterman, head of BioScience Product Research at Bayer CropScience.
The researchers are also using computer applications in the study of plant stress tolerance. This project will focus on systems biology, the science that studies biological systems as the interactions between many components such as genes, proteins and metabolites. This approach is necessary in the study of stress tolerance because the plant's reaction to drought or salinity is often controlled by complex networks of genes.
"The aim is to identify the genes and their networks involved in stress tolerance and to validate them experimentally. This should lead to plants with increased yield stability", said Frank Van Breusegem, Project Leader at VIB-UGent.
The study will initially be conducted on the model crop Arabidopsis thaliana, mouse-ear cress, to accelerate the effects of individual genes and networks of genes. In a later phase, promising genes will be tested in different crops including oilseeds and cereals.