EU-funded scientists are developing dedicated biomass crops that are drought tolerant so that they can be grown on land unsuitable for food crops. This will help sustainable bio-based energy and raw materials to succeed in Europe without applying pressure on food resources.
The WATBIO project has made important steps towards improving the production of drought-resistant biomass crops intended for conditions not suitable for food crops. This solution goes to the heart of a key challenge for European and indeed global agriculture: ensuring that biomass crops neither compete with food production nor negatively impact on precious water resources.
Biomass is derived from organic material such as trees, plants and agricultural waste, and can be a sustainable energy source for heating, electricity generation and transport fuels. While increasing biomass production is seen as crucial to transitioning to a resource efficient economy, this must achieved in a sustainable manner.
High tech sustainable solutions
The project, launched in 2012 and running until 2017, has focused on improving three key perennial non-food crops – poplar, miscanthus and arundo – that potentially offer high biomass yield. Through the use of next-generation sequencing, researchers have been able to identify new variants with increased drought tolerance for poplar trees, miscanthus and arundo (types of tall grass), while at the same time increasing their genetic diversity.
WATBIO partners recently created mutant versions of the arundo plant, a development that greatly increases its potential as a cultivated crop. The team is now looking at opportunities to commercially exploit this new plant material. Developing new variants of these species with improved drought tolerance and yield will ensure that biomass productivity and quality in water-scarce marginal land can be maintained in environments deemed unsuitable for growing food crops.
“The timing of the project was fortunate in that we have been able to fully benefit from declining costs of DNA and RNA sequencing,” explains project coordinator Gail Taylor from the University of Southampton, UK. “The research team was able to identify candidate target genes using this novel molecular technology and combine this with new methods for improved selection at an early stage for active breeding programmes.”
This cutting edge biological work has been complemented by environmental and economic assessments of the potential impact that these three crops might have in field conditions across Europe. Field trials are currently underway.
Benefits of cutting edge cooperation
Cross border cooperation has been an integral part of the project. Some of the most advanced systems for poplar transformation can be found in Sweden, whilst world-class modelling platforms for linking data are located in the Netherlands. The consortium has brought experts from across Europe together, enabled experiments to be carried out at world-class facilities in France, and for plant material to be sourced from the UK, Italy and Germany. “Similarly for miscanthus, active breeding takes place in the UK, but the technologies developed for bulking efficiently are located in Germany,” adds Taylor.
Furthermore, WATBIO’s main field site at Savigliano, Italy, which is equipped with extensive drip irrigation facilities, sensors and a weather station, is now open to European poplar and arundo researchers from outside the consortium. The site contains some 12 000 poplar trees and several hundred arundo plants, and will continue to provide valuable research resources long after project completion.
Picture credit: European commission