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Wild plants as climate change-resistant crops

18 January 2021

Aarhus University

Together with colleagues from the University of Copenhagen, researchers from Aarhus University will make new crops out of wild plants. Climate changes and an increasing population make it imperative to find alternatives to the crops that feed the world population today. The Novo Nordisk Foundation has given DKK 60 million to the research project which will make use of the robustness of wild plants to develop more resilient crops that can secure a high yield.

Agriculture faces major challenges with rising temperatures, droughts and floods. The crops grown today cannot, for the most part, survive such conditions. And along with the problems created by climate change, agriculture is facing having to feed a steadily growing population on earth. There will be more mouths to feed, and poorer conditions for the modern crops. Because even though today's crops give very large yields, they are also very sensitive to changing weather conditions.

"The crops we have today are the result of an evolutionary refinement, which has been carried out over many years," says Professor Henrik Brinch-Pedersen from Aarhus University. "They all come from wild plants, but they have been bred, and over time have lost much of their resistance to, for example, challenging winds and weather," says Henrik Brinch-Pedersen.

In fact, many of the wild plant species that are not used in food production today are far more resistant. Therefore, Professor Henrik Brinch-Pedersen together with colleagues from the Department of Molecular Biology and Genetics and the University of Copenhagen will combine the resistance of wild plants with the high yield from cultivated plants.

"In this way, we can create crops that can both survive climate change and help feed a growing population," says the professor.

“Agriculture originated in prehistoric times when humans found out to domesticate a few of the wild plants that they collected in the wild. By selecting mutants of these plants, in the ancient times some completely new characteristics emerged which made it possible to grow them on a large scale and thereby obtain more calories to live on much more efficiently. I would argue that it has been the most important event in human history. We must go back and repeat this process with new wild plants, ”says Associate Professor Kim Hebelstrup, who is also part of the project.

The research team has received a grant of 60 million from the Novo Nordisk Foundation for the six-year project, which has been named NovoCrops.

Returns to the ancestors

With the help of precision breeding, the researchers will be able to speed up a breeding process that could otherwise take several thousand years if it were to take place in nature.

"We domesticate the crops' wild ancestors so that they give a higher yield without losing their robustness, and this is good in relation to climate change, as they will be able to be grown even in very exposed areas," says Henrik Brinch-Pedersen.

The research team will study a variety of crops including wild barley, wild potato, alfalfa, quinoa and wheatgrass. Characteristic of them all is that they have a much larger and more diverse genome than their cultivated offspring. According to Michael Broberg Palmgren from the University of Copenhagen, a cultivated tomato as we know it has approx. 35,000 gener. In the original wild tomato gene pool, there are 40,000 genes, so thousands of genes have been lost through breeding. Many of these genes have helped protect the plant.

“There is no doubt that our plant production faces some major challenges in the future. Crop yields need to rise, and this is despite climate change, which they are finding it difficult to thrive under. But if we look at nature and wild plants, it is clear that they can easily thrive under even the harshest conditions. This is what we want to transfer to fruit-rich crops, but it is difficult and very complex to transfer basic resilience from one plant to another, ”says Henrik Brinch-Pedersen.

Therefore, researchers will not try to improve existing, processed and domesticated crops, such as those used in food production today. Instead, they will focus on breeding the wild ancestors using new precision breeding techniques. The goal is to create a total of six new domesticated crops that will be able to better fit into the more extreme climate of the future.

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