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Wild plants climate-secure the crops of the future

Researchers from Aarhus University and their colleagues from the University of Copenhagen, will make new crops out of wild plants. Climate change and an increasing population make it imperative to find alternatives to the crops that today feeds the earth. The Novo Nordisk Foundation has allocated DKK 60 million to the research project, which will utilize the robustness of wild plants to develop more resilient crops that can give a high yield.

2020.01.22 | Camilla Brodam

Photo: Colourbox

Agriculture faces major challenges with increasing temperatures, droughts and floods. For the most part, the crops grown today cannot survive such conditions. Together with the problems caused by climate change, agriculture is facing the need to feed a steadily growing population on earth. There will be more mouths to feed, but also worse growing conditions for the modern crops. Although today's crops give very high yields, they are also very sensitive to changing weather conditions.

"The crops we have today are the result of an evolutionary breeding that 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 lost much of their resilience to, for example, challenging weather," Henrik Brinch-Pedersen says.

In fact, many of the wild plant species that are not used in food production today are far more resilient. Professor Henrik Brinch-Pedersen will with the help from colleagues from the Department of Agroecology, Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen combine the resilience of wild plants with the high yield from refined 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 learned that they could domesticate a few of the wild plants that they used to collect in the wild. By selecting mutants of these plants, in the early antiquity, new properties emerged that made it possible to grow them on a large scale, thereby obtaining far more calories for survival. I would argue that it has been the most important event in human history. We need to 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, named NovoCrops.

Returns to the ancestors

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

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

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

“There is no doubt that our plant production faces some major challenges in the future. The crop yields have to increase, and this is despite climate change, in which they find it difficult to thrive. But if we look at nature and wild plants, it is clear to see that they can thrive in even the harshest conditions. This is what we would like to transfer to yield-rich crops, but it is difficult and very complex to transfer basic resilience from one plant to another,” Henrik Brinch-Pedersen explains.

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


The project

The project, which is a collaboration between researchers Aarhus University and the University of Copenhagen, has been titled: NovoCrops: Accelerated domestication of resilient climate-change friendly plant

Species. It is a six-year project, which runs from 2020-2026. It has received a grant from the Novo Nordisk Foundation of DKK60 million.


For further information

Professor MSO Henrik Brinch-Pedersen, Department of Agroecology, University of Aarhus.
Email: hbp@mbg.au.dk.
Tel. +45 8715 8268

Associate Professor Kim Hebelstrup, Department of Agroecology, University of Aarhus.
Email: kim.hebelstrup@mbg.au.dk.
Tel. +45 8715 8271

Research, Agro, DCA