The origins of GAIN4CROPS

Improving sustainability is probably the biggest challenge of the 21st century, and, even if there is no single silver bullet, the combination of different solutions might bring an effective improvement.

Andreas Weber, Project Coordinator

When the call “Boosting the efficiency of photosynthesis” came out in the H2020 framework programme, Andreas Weber and his colleagues/cooperation partners were very well equipped to respond to it. The goal to optimize the photosynthetic process via a multidisciplinary approach complemented well several ongoing projects, for example, the “FormatPlant” project funded by the German Federal Government, in which some of the partners from the Max Plank Society, University of Rostock and the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldor were working together on new approaches to bypass photorespiration.

“We saw the European project as a unique opportunity for a much more ambitious project.  Collaborating with the best partners from all across Europe and associated countries would give us the opportunity for field studies, as countries were involved where these are possible on selected sites,” recalls Prof. Andreas Weber, project coordinator of GAIN4CROPS and Head of the Institute of Plant Biochemistry at the Heinrich Heine University Düsseldor (DE).

This first spark was later expanded by two others to become the heart of GAIN4CROPS:  first, prototyping in many photosynthetic organisms to speed up the development process, and secondly, choosing the sunflower as the main target crop. Sunflower was selected due to its interesting phylogenetic context, as explains Prof. Weber. “One of our priorities was to potentially employ non-engineering approaches, thus relying only on the innate genetic variation of a plant. That was possible in sunflower, a European crop that shows a natural potential to evolve towards an optimized metabolism.”

Today agriculture is responsible for approximately 10% of the carbon emissions and it occupies a large land area, but it needs to keep pace with a growing population on a planet in short supply of resources and with changing environmental conditions. A central concept for the design of GAIN4CROPS is the idea that innovative and sustainable solutions already exist in nature. “Improving sustainability is probably the biggest challenge of the 21st century, and, even if there is no single silver bullet, the combination of different solutions might bring an effective improvement,” says Andreas Weber. In the quest for more sustainable agriculture, agriculture that uses less land and resources to grow crops, the so-called C4 plants hold huge potential.