Tuning into plant development to improve the sustainability of arable farming

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Biology


Increasing global temperature, combined with climate instability and an increasing human population are placing unprecedented challenges on our food supply chains. The solutions to these challenges will involve all aspects of society. In this project we are focussed on one part of this, the more sustainable production of the bread wheat crop with the aim of reducing excessive nutrient application. To achieve this we aim to develop a testing system which measures the first molecular changes in plant development, which occur before any visible changes. Then to use this molecular change as an accurate guide for the timing of a single winter/early spring nutrient application. We have identified a gene which we believe will provide such an early indicator and is responsive to climate variations. This is important as the response needs to be tuned according to the unique developmental timing which occurs each year. Through measuring the gene expression the timing of nutrient application could be determined.

In this project we will robustly test this hypothesis through multi-genotype trials with the standard two-nutrient application comparing it with the new gene expression led one-nutrient application. These trials will be conducted over multiple years and locations. If our hypothesis is correct the final yields of these trials should show no statistically significant differences. This would therefore provide wheat breeders and farmers with a system to reduce their nutrient application to the wheat crop, providing financial benefits as well as important environmental benefits. Excessive nutrient application has been a long-standing issue in intensive farming as it leads to a number of detrimental environmental consequences, including a reduction in biodiversity.

Additionally, in this project we will characterise the target gene at the molecular level to identify how it regulates the plant developmental network and what controls its expression. This will include the development of transgenic lines which will be used to identify binding targets as well as the molecular function through the generation of mutants in the same genetic background, using CRISPR technology. We will test these lines under future climate scenarios in climate-smart controlled environments.

On completion of this project we hope to have a detailed understanding of the function of our identified marker gene and how it is involved with the molecular regulation of wheat plant development. This is important to facilitate the translation of the project findings to other cereal crops. Secondly, we aim to have a prototype system for testing the expression of the gene, knowing the important threshold for its expression level and how this links with optimal nutrient application in the field in the UK.


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