Breeding crops that are tolerant to abiotic stresses such as cold and flooding

Low temperature (cold) stress is a major factor limiting crop productivity. This is of particular importance in perennial forage species in Ireland, where an extensive pastoral production system based on maximising the grazing season to limit the need to supplement diets with expensive concentrates has generated a need for forage varieties (esp. perennial ryegrass) that can provide adequate feed to grazing ruminants in the early spring and late autumn periods. To date, efforts to improve cold tolerance of crops have met with limited success due in part to our limited understanding of the underlying molecular mechanisms and physiological changes regulating cold stress responses in crops.

In addition to low temperature stress, crops like perennial ryegrass and cereals also experience waterlogging during spring growth conditions in Ireland. It has been predicted that the already high occurrence of rainfall in Ireland will further increase in the coming decades, with extreme precipitation and flooding events becoming more prevalent. Because many crops are highly sensitive to flooding, the development of new cultivars with increased tolerance to waterlogging is essential to ensure stable crop yields.

Crops seldom encounter stresses individually. In Ireland, during spring and winter, cold temperatures and waterlogged soils are often experienced simultaneously and can have severe impact on the yield potential of perennial ryegrass, barley and wheat. The interrelatedness and complex genetic control of these traits is a challenge for breeders, and developing information, tools and germplasm to help address them would be invaluable. In VICCI we are using a multi-pronged approach (field-based and controlled environment phenotyping, comparative metabolomics, proteomics, transcriptomics, re-sequencing, lipidomics, programmed cell death in roots, forward and reverse genetics) to address the improvement of perennial ryegrass and cereals.