Sustainably increasing crop yields using solutions inspired by nature

On  November 6, 2020
The recently launched EU-funded project GAIN4CROPS aims to improve the photosynthetic efficiency of the sunflower, an oil crop, using nature-inspired solutions and innovative breeding techniques. The 5-year, 8 million-euro project, funded under the EU Horizon 2020 Framework Programme, in which the Cell & Plant Physiology Laboratory (INRAE / CNRS / CEA / Université Grenoble Alpes) is participating, will pave the way for the introduction of strategic crops which could decrease the use of major resources in agriculture: land, nitrogen, and water.
GAIN4CROPS is developing novel disruptive technologies to overcome one of the main constraints of photosynthesis: photorespiration, a process that reduces CO2 assimilation efficiency, and thus biomass yield and agricultural productivity.

Most plants (85%), including rice, wheat, soybeans and all trees, perform so-called C3 photosynthesis. At higher temperatures, their photosynthetic efficiency is severely impaired by photorespiration, which constrains yield. However, some plants have evolved metabolic strategies to bypass this effect: they actively accumulate the CO2 in specific compartments, thus creating an environment unsuitable for photorespiration.

GAIN4CROPS takes inspiration from one of these naturally-occurring metabolic strategies and proposes a stepwise approach to enhance the efficiency of photosynthesis. The consortium aims to optimize the process by designing novel metabolic pathways that make better use of cellular resources by avoiding the release of CO2 back into the atmosphere.

“Attempts to include new metabolisms into crops proved to be very complicated, primarily due to difficulties in introducing a de novo leaf anatomy and fitting into the complex regulatory networks of the cell,” explains project coordinator Prof. Andreas Weber, from the Institute of Plant Biochemistry at the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf. “In GAIN4CROPS, instead, we are building on the natural physiology of the sunflower - which has the innate capacity to evolve towards improved metabolisms, ultimately increasing agricultural productivity.”

Overall, the approaches pursued by GAIN4CROPS hold potential for decreasing the use of three major resources in agriculture: land, nitrogen, and water. A more efficient photosynthetic rate increases crop yield per unit area of land, which in turn limits the expansion of arable land and the need for nitrogen fertilizers and water.
The benefits of GAIN4CROPS plants become even more evident at higher temperatures, promoting the development of the climate-resilient crops needed in order to address the consequences of anthropogenic climate change.

“With GAIN4CROPS, we are joining the current efforts to align land use and food production to preserve biodiversity, reduce the environmental impact of agriculture, and deliver sufficient quantities of healthy foods.” says Prof. Weber. Sunflower oil is indeed a healthy alternative to other edible oils, such as palm oil.
The consortium, composed of three research organizations (Max Planck Society, CEA and Agroscope), six academic institutions (Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf, University of Rostock, University of Cambridge, University of Padua, Estonian University of Life Science and University of Groningen), an industry representative (Corteva Agriscience) and three SMEs (IN srl, NRGene Ltd and Genomix4Life), encompasses a vast array of expertise and draws together cutting-edge research on plant physiology, microbiology and system biology with groups that are highly experienced in genome sequencing, plant breeding and field crops.

The Light, Photosynthesis and Metabolism team at the Cell & Plant Physiology Laboratory (INRAE/CNRS/CEA/UGA) in Grenoble is contributing to this project with its skills in the field of physiology, biophysics and photosynthetic metabolism as well as in metabolism modeling.

Giovanni Finazzi and Gilles Curien, CNRS researchers at the Cell & Plant Physiology Laboratory (UGA / CNRS / INRAE / CEA) within the Interdisciplinary Research Institute of CEA-Grenoble (CEA-Irig), explain: "Our team - Light, Photosynthesis and Metabolism - has developed some key research areas for the GAIN4CROPS project: the compartmentalization of metabolism in plants and the non-invasive analysis of photosynthesis. We are very excited about this opportunity to contribute our innovations in support of sustainable agriculture."

The experience gained with GAIN4CROPS will serve as a roadmap to attain similar performance levels in other plants and pave the way to innovative crops, which, thanks to their climate resilience and reduced resource consumption, could lead to a more sustainable form of agriculture.
Published on  February 8, 2021
Updated on  February 8, 2021