From Seed to Seedlings: Epigenetic Mechanisms of Priming to Design Strategies for Crop Improvement

With funding from Horizon Europe, the EpiSeedLink Marie Skłodowska-Curie Doctoral Network will train young plant scientists to identify epigenetically controlled seed vigour traits with the aim of improving crop resilience.
From Seed to Seedlings: Epigenetic Mechanisms of Priming to Design Strategies for Crop Improvement

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The EpiSeedLink Marie Skłodowska-Curie Doctoral Network is a four-year programme that has started in 2022 under the Horizon Europe framework of the European Union (EU). We aim to train a future generation of plant scientists to address urgent societal and agricultural needs by empowering the use of epigenetic variation to improve crop resilience.

Human activities are modifying the climate at an unprecedented speed. This is creating novel challenges for our environment, which is impacting our agricultural systems. Our crops were domesticated to grow under certain conditions and crop yields are now threatened by new, frequent and severe stresses. We are hence facing a very unstable future, in which the possibility of an increase in food insecurity is a likely scenario. The EpiSeedLink consortium is formed by a group of scientists from academia and industry who asked themselves ‘how can we help to solve these challenges’? Our answer was to focus on our expertise in plant epigenetics and to inspire a future generation of scientists.

EpiSeedLink – training the future generation

EpiSeedLink’s mission is to train 11 predoctoral researchers (who have already been recruited) in the epigenetic regulation of seed vigour and seed priming mechanisms and to translate scientific knowledge and skills into innovation and applications. EpiSeedLink’s fellows will be trained to become plant scientists with a broad range of scientific and transferable skills (e.g., communication and entrepreneurship) to tackle major agricultural challenges, and to enhance their career perspectives in both academic and non-academic work environments.

EpiSeedLink is formed by nine leading research teams across Europe (from Spain, France, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland and Ireland) and two industrial stakeholders (situated in Germany and Ireland). Our expertise encompasses a diversity of topics such as plant genetics and epigenetics, plant molecular biology and plant physiology. In addition, our industrial members contribute their knowledge of plant breeding and product development because EpiSeedLink aims to fill important knowledge gaps in how plants can adapt to a changing environment through enhancing seed vigour, a key economical crop trait. Our vision is that, thanks to the EpiSeedLink’s training programme and research projects, the fellows will develop their own portfolio of knowhow and will improve research abilities and complementary skills to create new knowledge and smart solutions at the interface between the public and private sector.

Seed vigour, a very complex trait

EpiSeedLink is focused on a very complex trait called seed vigour that can be described as a group of characteristics that make seeds perform to their highest potential allowing a homogeneous germination and sucessful seedling establishment. When farmers sow seeds in the field, they expect that these seeds will germinate fast, at the same time, and that the germination process will be resilient to stresses. All these expected traits depend on the seed's vigour. On the other hand, seed vigour is strongly influenced by the environment the mother plant was exposed to, the time of harvesting, how seeds are stored and handled and, what is paramount for EpiSeedLink, the genome and epigenome of the mother plant and the seed embryo.

Seed vigour is a main focus for seed companies that aim to produce high-quality seeds to satisfy agricultural expectations. Therefore, understanding how this intricate trait is regulated in the seed at molecular level and how we can boost it are EpiSeedLink's main objectives. For instance, seed priming is used to increase seed vigour and can be defined as pre-sowing treatment able to induce seed metabolism without allowing germination. Seed priming treatments set seeds in a state that helps them later to germinate more efficiently and uniformly, particularly under stress conditions. In addition, plants grown from primed seeds show a tendency to overperform and produce higher yield. Sustainable seed priming treatments in the form of biostimulants (i.e., any substance promoting plant growth and resistance usually based on microorganisms or seaweed extracts) can provide solutions to increase yield and protect the environment by reducing the use of pesticides. Understanding how seed priming enhances seed vigour is also one of EpiSeedLink’s goals.

What is epigenetics and how can epigenetics contribute to seed vigour?

All the information that is required to form an organism is contained in the genetic material of the nucleus of a cell in the form of DNA. All the DNA within a nucleus together forms the genome of an organism. Within the DNA, the information is organised in units called genes. How and when genes are expressed is key to regulate any cellular process. Complex physiological traits, such as seed vigour, are affected by the orchestration of the expression of many different genes through reprogramming of the genome during seed germination. In this reprogramming, epigenetic mechanisms play key roles. Epigenetic mechanisms among others involve chemical modifications of the DNA and proteins that together make up the chromosomes. In an analogy, we can consider the DNA as the hardware in which the instructions are contained, while epigenetic modifications are part of the software that controls it. In EpiSeedLink we aim to investigate which genetic and epigenetic mechanisms underly seed vigour and seed priming to discover molecular tools that may aid to improve crop yield and, in the future, develop novel crop varieties better adapted to climate change. EpiSeedLink’s aspiration is thereby to generate unprecedented insights into the molecular mechanisms that predispose crops to resilience.

EpiSeedLink research topics

EpiSeedLink is organised around three research topics that outline its main goals:

Research Topic 1 is focused on understanding the developmental processes that occur during seed germination and seedling establishment and aims to discover epigenetic mechanisms that operate during seed germination and seedling establishment under optimal growth conditions.

EpiSeedLink’s Research Topic 2 aims to identify molecular mechanisms that help plants to adapt to stress during seed germination. We expect that a better understanding of these mechanisms will provide clues to improve crop yield. To develop this research topic, we will focus on drought, a worldwide stress that is predicted to be aggravated by climate change, and oilseed rape, one of the most cultivated oil crops in Europe.

Research Topic 3’s goals are to define seed priming tools for stress acclimation, improved growth and crop performance and to shed light on the molecular processes that are triggered by seed priming. Thus, EpiSeedLink aspires to develop a novel seed priming technology for farmers to allow them to cultivate crops under unfavourable weather conditions.

EpiSeedLink Training Programme

To achieve its scientific and learning goals, the main focus of EpiSeedLink is its research fellows; they are the new generation of scientists that in fact have the potential to change our world into a more sustainable one. For this reason, EpiSeedLink provides the fellows with an international, multidisciplinary, and inter-sectorial doctoral training programme in experimental and computational biology, and an in depth understanding of the genetic and epigenetic mechanisms controlling seed quality traits and seed priming. The programme combines the unique know-how of academic experts and seed companies in seed biology, crop breeding, epigenetics and seed biostimulants to synergise research and knowledge transfer between model and crop plants. EpiSeedLink will hence not only contribute to research excellence, but also address urgent societal and agricultural needs by contributing to the development of a sustainable bioeconomy in a changing climate.

Photo by Joshua Lanzarini on Unsplash 

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