Scientists transform tobacco info factory for high-value proteins

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For thousands of years, plants have produced food for humans, but with genetic tweaks, they can also manufacture proteins like Ebola vaccines, antibodies to combat a range of conditions, and now, cellulase that is used in food processing and to break down crop waste to create biofuel. In Nature Plants, a team from Cornell University and the University of Illinois announced that crops can cheaply manufacture proteins inside their cellular power plants called chloroplasts—allowing the crops to be grown widely in fields rather than restrictive greenhouses—with no cost to yield.

“This research shows the potential to improve people’s quality of life by producing medicinal and industrial proteins at costs that are orders of magnitude cheaper than current production methods,” said Justin McGrath, a research scientist at the IGB, whose work was supported by the IGB Fellows program. “Currently, protein production can cost hundreds to thousands of dollars per gram, but we estimate that this new approach would reduce costs to just a few dollars per gram, allowing production to expand exponentially to help meet market demand.”

Typically, these proteins are produced using cell cultures, where yeast or other microbes manufacture proteins in batch production. The genes that encode for these proteins are located in the nuclei of tobacco leaf cells—but each tobacco leaf cell has only one nucleus with one DNA copy to manufacture protein, limiting the amount of protein that can be produced. These plants must be grown in sealed greenhouses to prevent gene escape from their pollen.

In this study, the team engineered tobacco to produce cellulase proteins in the crop’s chloroplasts, where plants turn sunlight and carbon dioxide into energy through the process called photosynthesis. Each leaf cell contains about one hundred chloroplasts that contain thousands of copies of chloroplast DNA—which is separate from nuclear DNA—that can produce an enormous amount of protein.

“Given the huge health costs inflicted on global society, the idea of growing any more tobacco is not just bad, but ugly. But, this overlooks the fact that tobacco—as a crop bred to produce large quantities of leaves—could be a factory for good,” said Stephen Long (BSD/CABBI/GEGC), the Ikenberry Endowed University Chair of Crop Sciences at Illinois. “Chloroplasts are not present in pollen, making it possible to cultivate this engineered tobacco in fields and transform land once used for cigarette and cigar production into protein factories that can improve our health and industrial efficiency.”

However, chloroplast DNA encodes proteins essential for photosynthesis, which provides the energy for all plant growth and production—including protein production. This study asked whether protein production in the chloroplast compromises photosynthesis and growth.

To find out, the team grew tobacco engineered to produce cellulase in real-world, agronomic conditions over two years at Illinois’ Energy Farm. While they detected a slight effect on photosynthetic capacity in one year, there were no detectable differences in yield in either year.

“We showed, for the first time, that large amounts of recombinant protein can be produced in field cultivation and that this does not compromise photosynthesis or crop productivity,” McGrath said. “This study opens the door to much wider testing of chloroplast protein production, and ultimately, tobacco fields that would do good for society.”

Read the paper: Nature Plants

Article source: University of Illinois

Image: Cornell University / University of Illinois

Climate change could affect symbiotic relationships between microorganisms and trees

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Some fungi and bacteria live in close association, or symbiosis, with tree roots in forest soil to obtain mutual benefits. The microorganisms help trees access water and nutrients from the atmosphere or soil, sequester carbon, and withstand the effects of climate change. In exchange, they receive carbohydrates, which are essential to their development and are produced by the trees during photosynthesis.

More than 200 scientists from several countries, including 14 from Brazil, collaborated to map the global distribution of these root symbioses and further the understanding of their vital role in forest ecosystems. They identified factors that determine where different kinds of symbionts may emerge and estimated the impact of climate change on tree-root symbiotic relationships and hence on forest growth.

They concluded that the majority of ectomycorrhizal trees will decline by as much as 10% if emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) proceed unabated until 2070, especially in cooler parts of the planet. Ectomycorrhizae are a form of symbiotic relationship that occurs between fungal symbionts and the roots of various plant species.

The authors of the study, featured on the cover of Nature, included Brazilian researchers Carlos Joly and Simone Aparecida Vieira, both professors at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and coordinators of the FAPESP Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (BIOTA-FAPESP), as well as plant ecologist Luciana Ferreira Alves, now at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in the United States.

“We’ve long known that root-microorganism symbiosis is key to enable certain tree species to survive in areas where the soil is very poor and nutrients are released slowly by the decomposition of organic matter. The mapping survey helps us understand the distribution of these relationships worldwide and the factors that determine them,” Vieira told Agência FAPESP.

The researchers focused on mapping three of the most common groups of tree-root symbionts: arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, ectomycorrhizal fungi, and nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Each group comprises thousands of species of fungi or bacteria that form unique partnerships with different tree species.

Thirty years ago, botanist David Read, Emeritus Professor of Plant Science at the University of Sheffield in the United Kingdom and a pioneer of symbiosis research, drew maps to show locations around the world where he thought different symbiotic fungi might reside based on the nutrients they provide to fuel tree growth.

Ectomycorrhizal fungi provide trees with nitrogen directly from organic matter, such as decaying leaves, so Read proposed that these fungi would be more successful in forests with cooler and drier seasonal climates, where decomposition is slow and leaf litter is abundant.

In contrast, Read argued, arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi should dominate in the tropics, where tree growth is limited by soil phosphorus and the warm, wet climate accelerates decomposition.

More recently, research by other groups has shown that nitrogen-fixing bacteria seem to thrive most in arid biomes with alkaline soil and high temperatures.

These hypotheses have now become testable thanks to the data gathered from large numbers of trees in various parts of the globe and made available by the Global Forest Biodiversity Initiative (GFBI), an international consortium of forest scientists.

In recent years, GFBI-affiliated researchers have built a database comprising information from more than 1.1 million forest plots and have inventoried 28,000 tree species. They surveyed actual trees located in over 70 countries on every continent except Antarctica.

The inventories also contain information on soil composition, topography, temperature and carbon storage, among other items.

“The plots inventoried by researchers linked to BIOTA-FAPESP are located in areas of Atlantic rainforest, including the northern coast of São Paulo State, such as Caraguatatuba, Picinguaba, Cunha and Santa Virgínia, and the southern coast of the state, such as Carlos Botelho and Ilha do Cardoso,” Joly said. “We also inventoried a substantial part of the Amazon region via projects in collaboration with other groups.”

Data on the locations of 31 million trees from this database, along with information on the symbionts associated with them, were fed by the GFBI team into a computer algorithm that estimated the impacts of climate, soil chemistry, vegetation and topography, among other variables, on the prevalence of each type of symbiosis.

The analysis suggested that climate variables associated with organic decomposition rates, such as temperature and moisture, are the main factors influencing arbuscular mycorrhizal and ectomycorrhizal symbioses, while nitrogen-fixing bacteria are likely limited by temperature and soil acidity.
“Climate changes occurring in the Northern Hemisphere may displace ectomycorrhizal fungi to other regions, leading to a drastic reduction in the density of these symbiotic relationships or their total loss,” Vieira said.

“This can affect nutrient cycling and above all carbon fixation, which depends on these symbiotic associations if forest vegetation is to absorb nutrients that are scarce or not available in the requisite form.”

Effects of climate change

To gauge the vulnerability of global symbiosis levels to climate change, the researchers used their mapping survey to predict how symbioses may change by 2070 if carbon emissions continue unabated.

The projections indicated a 10% reduction in ectomycorrhizal fungi and hence in the abundance of trees associated with these fungi, corresponding to 60% of all trees.

The researchers caution that this loss could lead to more CO2 in the atmosphere because ectomycorrhizal fungi tend to increase the amount of carbon stored in the soil.

“CO2 limits photosynthesis, and an increase in atmospheric carbon could have a fertilization effect. Faster-growing plant species may be able to make better use of this rise in CO2 availability in the atmosphere than slower-growing plants, potentially leading to species selection. However, this remains to be seen,” Joly said.

The researchers are also investigating the likely impact of increased atmospheric CO2 and global warming on plant development. Plants must expend more resources on respiration in a warmer climate, so photosynthesis will accelerate. What the net outcome of this growth effect will be is unclear, according to the researchers.

“These questions regarding tropical forests are still moot. Continuous monitoring of permanent forest plots will help us answer them,” Joly said.

Read the paper: Nature

Article source: By Elton Alisson | Agência FAPESP

Image: bere von awstburg / Pixabay

Aggressive, non-native wetland plants squelch species richness more than dominant natives do

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Dominant, non-native plants reduce wetland biodiversity and abundance more than native plants do, researchers report in the journal Ecology Letters. Even native plants that dominate wetland landscapes play better with others, the team found.

The researchers analyzed 20 years of data collected by expert botanists from hundreds of randomly selected sites in Illinois. This allowed them to track changes in the variety and abundance of different plants in the same locations over time.

The dominant non-natives are not just choking out many other plants, the researchers report. They also have a broad ecological footprint, taking over wetlands on a regional level, rather than just in individual sites. This negatively affects populations of birds and insects that rely on the native wetlands.

“The more dominant they are, the less room is available for other species,” said Illinois Natural History plant ecologist and botanist Greg Spyreas, who conducted the research with INHS plant ecologist David Zaya and colleagues from the U.S. Geological Survey. “These non-natives become more dominant over time and their impact on the rest of the community is fundamentally different,” Spyreas said. “They outcompete better. And that’s across hundreds of sites.”

For example, a European cultivar of reed canary grass has taken hold in many parts of North America. It grows extremely fast, reduces the light available to other plants, produces enormous numbers of seeds and sends out underground stems to quickly colonize a site, Spyreas said.

“It creates this very thick thatch of dead material on the ground that other plants can’t penetrate – but it can,” he said. “It tolerates drought and flooding very well, whereas a lot of native plants cannot.”

Another offender, a non-native common reed, Phragmites, “is notable in its aggressiveness,” Zaya said. It can quickly crowd out other wetland species, including native Phragmites.

Not all non-native plants reduce the ecological richness of wetlands, Zaya said.

“There are non-natives that sit in the background and don’t affect the wetland community,” he said. “Also, many native plants will dominate wetland communities.”

Some researchers have hypothesized that it doesn’t matter if a dominant plant is native or non-native: Both can drive down the diversity and abundance of other species, Zaya said.

But the new study shows that dominant, non-native species are much more likely to radically diminish the biological diversity of a locale than their native counterparts will.

“When I see native- versus non-native-dominated wetlands, it looks like two totally different worlds,” Zaya said. “Each native wetland has its own personality, with a different little flower or forb or rare grass or sedge. No two are the same. But the non-native wetlands tend to look alike. They’re the same here as they are in Ohio.”

The data also offer insights into how to best maintain wetland diversity, the researchers said.

“If you have a massive database of wetland plants like we do in Illinois, if you look at the numbers, you can isolate the species that are the most problematic,” Spyreas said. Five non-native wetland plants are on the “worst offender” list, he said: reed canary grass, a non-native cattail, invasive Phragmites and two European buckthorns.

“If you can eliminate those, you’ve eliminated 90 percent of the non-native wetland species problem,” Spyreas said.

Read the paper: Ecology letters

Article source: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, News Bureau

Image: Greg Spyreas, Michael Jeffords and Susan Post

South African forests show pathways to a sustainable future

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Native forests make up 1% of the landscape in South Africa but could play a key role in reducing atmospheric carbon and identifying sustainable development practices that can be used globally to counter climate change, according to a Penn State researcher.

“As we think about pathways for reducing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, one of the available approaches is to use the natural world as a sponge,” said Erica Smithwick, professor of geography and director of the Center for Landscape Dynamics at Penn State.

The challenge, according to Smithwick, is to use forests to store carbon while also meeting local community needs. As trees grow, they absorb and store carbon through photosynthesis. Carbon makes up about half of a tree’s mass, but amounts vary by species. To find its carbon stock, scientists use equations based on the tree’s diameter and other variables, like height and wood density, rather than cutting down and weighing each species.

In 2011, Smithwick tagged and measured trees in the Dwesa-Cwebe nature reserve in the Eastern Cape Province with help from students in Penn State‘s Parks and People study abroad program. She remeasured the trees five years later while in South Africa on a Core Fulbright U.S. Scholarship and analyzed the forests’ carbon content. The results of the study, one of the first to quantify carbon content in Africa, appear in a recent issue of the journal Carbon Management.

Smithwick found that the coastal, indigenous forests store a moderate to large amount of carbon. They are also a biodiversity hotspot and thus important for conservation. The local communities depend on the forests for resources such as medicinal plants, fuelwood and timber, as well as their spiritual needs, Smithwick added.

“As we move toward the sustainable development of these places, we need to think about how the local communities are able to value and work with these characteristics of the forests,” said Smithwick, who also holds an appointment in Penn State’s Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. “Understanding what is an optimal level of productivity extraction from the natural system so we’re not degrading the system is an area of interest. We’re trying to figure out what the balance between forest productivity and resource extraction is.”

Smithwick noted that the large amount of forest productivity, or how quickly the forests grow, and small amount of human use of forest resources suggest that humans are not negatively influencing the Dwesa-Cwebe forests. She added that access to the nature reserve is limited, and other reserves see more resource extraction.

The South African government manages Dwesa-Cwebe but plans eventually to hand over management of the park to the surrounding local communities. Smithwick said that conservation of the area must integrate human interactions and values into a development model that recognizes how humans can benefit a forest system if managed in a sustainable way.

“We have to recognize the importance of these natural forests and their biodiversity and carbon values, but we also have to situate that in a sustainable development challenge,” said Smithwick, who is also director of the Huck Institutes of Life Sciences Ecology Institute and associate director of the Institutes of Energy and the Environment. “The forest in South Africa is a good case study for how we start to think about balancing these considerations. The lessons learned from this hopefully can resonate to how we think about these challenges in other parts of the world.”

Read the paper: Carbon Management

Article source: Penn State

Image: Erica Smithwick Lab / Penn State

Unearthing the sweet potato proteome

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The sweet, starchy orange sweet potatoes are tasty and nutritious ingredients for fries, casseroles and pies. Although humans have been cultivating sweet potatoes for thousands of years, scientists still don’t know much about the protein makeup of these tubers. In ACS’Journal of Proteome Research, researchers have analyzed the proteome of sweet potato leaves and roots, and in the process, have revealed new insights into the plant’s genome.

The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas, Lam.) is a staple food in some parts of the world, in addition to being used for animal feed and industrial products, such as biofuels. The plant has a surprisingly complex genome, encoding more predicted genes than the human genome. Sweet potato also has a complex chemical composition, with a low protein content in the roots (the part that people eat) and many secondary metabolites in the leaves, making it difficult to extract sufficient quantities of proteins for analysis. Sorina and George Popescu and colleagues wanted to see whether a “proteogenomics” approach — analyzing both protein and genetic data together — could help them gain a better understanding of the compositions of sweet potato roots and leaves.

The team extracted proteins from root and leaf samples using two different methods and cut them into peptides, which they analyzed with liquid chromatography and mass spectrometry. The researchers identified 3,143 unique proteins from sweet potato leaves and 2,928 from roots. When they compared the proteomic data with the genome of the sweet potato, they identified some regions in the published genome sequence where their data could provide enhanced information. For example, the analysis predicted 741 new protein-coding regions that previously were not thought to be genes. The group says the results could be used to help further characterize and biofortify the tuber.

Read the paper: Journal of Proteome Research

Article source: American Chemical Society

Image: Iva Balk/Pixabay

Directed evolution comes to plants

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Accelerating plant evolution with CRISPR paves the way for breeders to engineer new crop varieties.

A new platform for speeding up and controlling the evolution of proteins inside living plants has been developed by a KAUST-led team.

Previously, this type of directed evolution system was only possible in viruses, bacteria, yeast and mammalian cell lines. The Saudi research—part of KAUST’s Desert Agriculture Initiative—has now expanded the technique to rice and other food plants. It means that plant breeders now have an easy way to rapidly engineer new crop varieties capable of withstanding weeds, diseases, pests and other agricultural stresses.

“We expect that our platform will be used for crop bioengineering to improve key traits that impact yield and immunity to pathogens,” says group leader Magdy Mahfouz. “This technology should help improve plant resilience under climate change conditions.”

To experimentally build their directed evolution platform, Mahfouz and his colleagues used a combination of targeted mutagenesis and artificial selection in the rice plant, Oryza sativa. They took advantage of the gene-editing tool known as CRISPR to generate DNA breaks at more than 100 sites throughout the SF3B1 gene, which encodes a protein involved in the processing of other gene transcripts. After manipulating the DNA of small bundles of rice cells in this way, the researchers then grew the mutated seedlings in the presence of herboxidiene, a herbicide that normally targets the SF3B1 protein to inhibit plant growth and development.

This strategy ultimately yielded more than 20 new rice variants with mutations that conferred resistance to herboxidiene to varying degrees. In collaboration with Stefan Arold’s group at the KAUST Computational Bioscience Research Center, Mahfouz and his colleagues then characterized the structural basis of the resistance—showing, for example, how particular mutations helped destabilize herbicide binding to the SF3B1 protein.

Herboxidiene is not widely used in industrial agriculture, but the same basic directed evolution strategy could now be used to design crops resistant to more common weed-killers. The herbicides would then eliminate unwanted surrounding plants while leaving the desired cultivated crop intact.

Breeders could also begin to evolve practically any trait of interest, notes Haroon Butt, a postdoctoral fellow in Mahfouz’s lab. “This is a proof-of-principle study with wide applicability,” says Butt, the first author of the paper that outlines the technology. “Our platform mimics Darwinism, and the selection pressure involved helps enforce the development of new gene variants and traits that would not be possible by any other known method.”

Read the paper: Genome Biology

Article source: KAUST – King Abdullah University of Science and Technology

Image: KAUST

Unexpected culprit – wetlands as source of methane

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Wetlands are an important part of the Earth’s natural water management system. The complex system of plants, soil, and aquatic life serves as a reservoir that captures and cleans water. However, as cities have expanded, many wetlands were drained for construction. In addition, many areas of land in the Midwest were drained to increase uses for agriculture to feed a growing world.

Draining wetlands disconnected the natural flow and retention of water, a system that had worked well for millennia. One solution to wetland draining was to rebuild these wetlands in another area (more convenient to humans). These are referred to as “constructed wetlands.” In other cases, constructed wetlands are built to rebuild an area no longer used for agriculture.

How these constructed wetlands are built and managed can make a big environmental impact. Karla Jarecke and researchers from several universities have been studying wetlands’ impact on the greenhouse gas methane.

“Globally, wetlands are the largest natural source of methane to the atmosphere,” says Jarecke. “Methane has a much bigger impact than carbon dioxide on global warming – an impact 25 times greater.”

Both natural and constructed wetlands emit methane. Due to their nature – wetlands are, after all, wet – soil microbes and plants are forced to metabolize under anaerobic conditions. And, this leads to methane production.

The soil microbes are responsible for the production of methane in wetlands. The methane then gets to the atmosphere via diffusion, transport through plant tissue, and the episodic release of gas bubbles. The hydrologic stability of wetland soils, as well as the transport efficiency through plants, can affect how much and how often methane is released from the soil.

“Understanding the conditions under which methane is produced and released in wetlands could lead to solutions to reduce methane emissions,” says Jarecke.

The study focused on two common wetland plants and their potential role in methane emissions: swamp milkweed and northern water plantain. Plants and soils were collected from a constructed wetland in Dayton, Ohio. They were then transported to Lincoln, Nebraska to create wetland mesocosms. The Dayton site had formerly been drained and used for agriculture and was rebuilt as wetland in 2012.

The researchers harvested seedlings of swamp milkweed and northern water plantain from the wetland and transplanted them into soils collected in PVC pipe. They covered individual plants with clear acrylic cylinders during gas sampling. This helped them measure and quantify methane emissions from the soil-plant mesocosms. The study was performed in the summer of 2013.

Besides comparing the emissions of the two plant species, the researchers studied the effects of hydrology – or the saturation of the soil. “While the controls of hydrology and plant species on methane emissions are individually well-studied, the two are rarely studied together,” says Jarecke.

This recent study concluded that water level and saturation influenced methane emissions more than the type of plant species. While methane emissions differed between laboratory mesocosms with water plantain and mesocosms with swamp milkweed, methane emissions did not differ in field mesocosms with each of the two species. In the field, soil saturation had a greater effect on methane emissions.

Finding plant species that reduce microbial methane production could be a key to better wetland management. For example, plants that deliver oxygen to the rooting zone can suppress microbial methane production. In addition, future research is needed to understand how varying soil saturation affects methane emissions. This information could be valuable for designing wetland topography that creates hydrologic conditions for increased carbon storage and reduced methane emissions.

Read the paper: Soil Science Society of America Journal

Article source: American Society of Agronomy

Image: Karla Jarecke

Cell structure linked to longevity of slow-growing ponderosa pines

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Slow-growing ponderosa pines may have a better chance of surviving longer than fast-growing ones, especially as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of drought, according to new research from the University of Montana.

Researchers found that ponderosa longevity might hinge on the shape of microscopic valve-like structures between the cells that transport water through the tree.

The study, led by UM alumna Beth Roskilly and Professor Anna Sala, was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The researchers sampled growth rates of ponderosa pine trees of varying ages at two remote sites in Idaho. They also studied structural traits of the trees’ xylem – vascular tissue that transports water and minerals through the wood and provides structural support.

Their findings reveal that some young trees grow quickly while others grow slowly. But old ponderosa pine trees – those older than 350 years – are slow growers compared to younger trees, and these individual trees have always been slow growing, even when they were young.

In contrast to predictions, slow-growing trees, whether old or young, did not produce denser, tougher wood, which might have made the trees more resistant to disease or decay. Instead, a key difference between fast and slow growers resides in a microscopic valve-like structure between the cells that transport water in the wood, called the pit membrane. The unique shape of this valve in slow-growing trees provides greater safety against drought, but it slows down water transport, limiting growth rate.

“Ponderosa pines, like people, cannot have it all,” said Roskilly, the paper’s lead author. “Drought resistance contributes to longevity but also to slow growth. In other words, there is a fundamental tradeoff based on xylem structure. Our study suggests that trees with fast growth become large quickly, which can be beneficial for young trees competing for resources, but they are more vulnerable to drought and can die at earlier ages. On the other hand, trees that grow slowly are more drought resistant, which enhances longevity.”

Roskilly earned her UM master’s degree in organismal biology, ecology and evolution in 2018, and the study is a result of her degree work in UM’s College of Humanities and Sciences.

“Ancient trees are special for many reasons,” said Sala, a professor in UM’s Division of Biological Sciences and an adjunct professor in the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation. “They are beautiful, they make the highest quality musical instruments, they help maintain diversity, and they store atmospheric carbon in wood for a long time. But the results of this research also suggest they are special because forest managers cannot make just any ponderosa pine tree live for centuries no matter how hard they try. For ponderosa pines to become centennials, their wood must possess this unique structure.”

Other co-authors in the study include UM alumnus Eric Keeling, a professor at the State University of New York; UM alumna Sharon Hood, a research ecologist with the U.S. Forest Service; and Arnaud Giuggiola, a former visiting master’s student from the University of Bordeaux. This project built on dissertation work by Keeling and began as an undergraduate research project started by Roskilly.

Read the paper: PNAS

Article source: University of Montana

Image: Beth Roskilly

Assessing the greenhouse gas impact of forest management activities in EU countries

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On 18 June 2019, the Commission published its assessment of Member States’ draft plans to implement the EU’s Energy Union objectives, in particular the agreed EU 2030 energy and climate targets, as well as technical recommendations on Member States’ National Forestry Accounting Plans.

These plans contain a proposed “Forest Reference Levels”, which act as a baseline for future greenhouse gas emissions and removals from managed forest land.

The JRC played a key role in the development of this concept, which allows assessing the greenhouse gas impact of human action in the forestry sector.

Measuring the impact of human action in the forestry sector

The EU has set a target for reducing its anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by at least 40% by 2030 relative to 1990.

As explained by Giacomo Grassi, the JRC’s expert on measuring the climate impact of forest management, “it is rather straightforward to measure the impacts of human activities on emissions from, for instance, the energy sector: all emissions are anthropogenic and any reduction of emissions can be claimed as anthropogenic. But in the forestry sector this becomes more challenging”.

Forest trees absorb CO2 through photosynthesis, and therefore mitigate climate change. In the EU, for example, forests offset nearly 10% of total EU GHG emissions.

However, to give the right policy incentives for enhancing our carbon sinks, we need to identify how much of this absorption is due to recent forest management decisions.

“If you plant a tree, continues Giacomo, this is clearly a result of recent human action. However, the CO2 absorption in the majority of existing EU forests is largely affected by natural factors or by management choices done a long time ago, e.g. when your grand-grandfather planted a tree”.

Measuring how much of the current CO2 absorption by forests is due to ongoing human activities has therefore long been a demanding task.

Science-based carbon accounting system for forest management

A JRC-led group of forest experts has developed a new science-based approach to assess the greenhouse gas impact of human action in the forestry sector.

This approach is based on country-specific projected baselines which will be used to measure the GHG impact of future forest activities.

“In other words, says Giacomo, each country calculates how much CO2 would be absorbed by its forests without changing the current management. This sets the baseline, called Forest Reference Level”.

This approach ensures greater environmental integrity and comparability of mitigation efforts across sectors of the economy.

At the same time, it allows to reflect the country-specific forest dynamics, for example if a forest on average is getting older.

Integrating the land-use, land-use change and forestry (LULUCF) sector in the EU climate strategy

This approach was included in the EU Regulation from 2018 incorporating the forest sector in the EU 2030 climate targets.

As required by this Regulation, the EU Member States propose their Forest Reference Levels for the period 2021-2025.

An expert group composed of Member States representatives, technical specialists, NGOs and research organisations was formed to undertake a technical assessment of the plans and the proposed forest reference level.

The JRC played a very active role in facilitating this technical assessment.

The Commission has now issued technical recommendations reflecting the conclusions of the assessment process.

These technical recommendations will form the basis for the revision of Member States’ forest reference levels, which are to be submitted by 31 December 2019.

The Commission will then adopt delegated acts containing the final forest reference levels for the period 2021 and 2025 by 31 October 2020.

Article source: European Commission, Joint Research Centre (JRC)

Image: pixel2013/Pixabay

Wheat myth comes a cropper

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The myth that modern wheat varieties are more heavily reliant on pesticides and fertilisers than older varieties has been debunked by new research.

The University of Queensland’s Dr Kai Voss-Fels said modern wheat varieties have out-performed older varieties in side-by-side field trials under both optimum and harsh growing conditions.

“There is a view that intensive selection and breeding, which has produced the high-yielding wheat cultivars used in modern cropping, has also made them less resilient and more dependent on chemicals to thrive,” Dr Voss-Fels said.

“However, the data published today unequivocally shows that modern wheat out-performs older varieties, even under conditions of reduced amounts of fertilisers, fungicides and water.

“We also found that genetic diversity within the relatively narrow modern wheat gene pool is rich enough to potentially generate a further 23 per cent increase in yields.”

The researchers compared 200 wheat varieties, essential to agriculture in Western Europe over the past 50 years, under contrasting input levels of mineral fertilisers and plant protection chemicals.

Dr Voss-Fels said the findings might surprise some farmers and environmentalists.

“Quite a few people will be taken aback by just how tough modern wheat varieties proved to be, even in harsh growing conditions, such as drought, and using less chemical inputs.”

Dr Voss-Fels and Professor Ben Hayes at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAFFI) developed a method to match the performance differences with the different varieties’ genetic make-up.

“This genetic information allows us to take the discovery to the next level,” Dr Voss-Fels said.

“We want to develop breeding strategies to bring together favourable alleles in new cultivars in the shortest possible time.”

“We are using artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to predict the optimal crosses needed to bring together the most favourable segments as fast as possible.”

Global yields of the world’s most important food crop have been reduced by droughts in recent years.

Dr Voss-Fels said with more climate risk anticipated, the hardiness of modern wheat varieties was an issue of global significance.

“Increased breeding efforts are needed to enhance the resilience of wheat varieties to challenging environmental conditions.”

Dr Voss-Fels said the study’s findings could also have important implications for raising the productivity of organic cropping systems.

Professor Rod Snowdon of the Justus-Liebig-University Gießen (JLU) and collaborators from seven other German universities led the research.

Read the paper: Nature Plants

Article source: University of Queensland

Image: University of Queensland

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