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New project will track pollinator preferences to select more resilient plants

DARkWIN will track the preferences of bumblebees (which will be followed by radio frequency) to guide plant natural selection and breeding. The research will be carried out on an experimental crop, exposed to heat and drought, and using Living IoT technology.

One of the bumblebees in the project, with a small passive RFID tag

How we can adapt crops to climate change to maintain food security?  "Climate change models predict a 30% loss in crop yields in southern Europe over the next 50 years," explains Francisco Pérez Alfocea, a researcher at CSIC's Centro de Edafología y Biología Aplicada del Segura (CEBAS).

The reason for this loss is a combination of factors such as water scarcity, rising temperatures, salinity and nutrient deficiencies. Combined, these factors reduce productivity as they affect plant physiology during flowering, but they also affect ecosystem services such as plant-pollinator interaction, which are essential for many crops.

A new project proposes a unique and innovative approach for selecting more resistant plant varieties. The project DARkWIN proposes to track pollinator preferences to guide natural selection and plant breeding. This will be done in an experimental tomato crop, exposed to heat and drought, and with 'Living IoT' technology, which will enable to quantify the degree of plant well-being by analysing the interaction between plants, environment and pollinators.

The essential is in the flowers

"We know that low resilient plants have a reduced transport of nutrients from leaves to flowers," explains the researcher. Until now, all studies have focused on what happens in the leaves of plants. But "flowers are better indicators of plant well-being". In fact, chemical composition of flowers changes in response to heat and drought, as it does the amount of pollen and nectar produced by the flowers, which in the end feed pollinators.

 "However," notes this researcher, "far from using pollinators vision to improve crops, humans have contributed to the decline of bees and other pollinators through intensive crops and the massive use of fertilisers and pesticides, making future food production even more difficult."

Actually, current crops, selected over decades to prioritise yield, are poorly resilient. "The human perspective has been the driving force behind plant domestication over the last 10,000 years, prioritising traits of interest in varieties to ensure human subsistence and ignoring other traits such as resistance to environmental factors or interaction with pollinators, which initially seemed irrelevant," Pérez Alfocea notes. The aim was to find the most productive plants in the most optimal conditions possible. But with climate change, conditions will become progressively less optimal. "The selection for reproductive traits has gone hand in hand with the loss of resistance traits.

Pollinator-guided plant selection

DARkWIN will use a geolocation system based on radio frequency technology to assess bumblebee interaction with plants. As Pérez Alfocea explains, a small passive RFID tag that is identified by radio frequency will be attached to a group of bumblebees.

After several tests, the team has confirmed that the bumblebees can safely fly with the RFID tag. By placing antennae close to the flowers, the bumblebees' preferences can be quantified. "Variables such as the number of visits by one or more bumblebees to different plants, time spent on plants and evolution over the days will be recorded," says the researcher.

Given that a passive RFID tag on a bumblebee last about five days on average (either because it falls off or because the bumblebee stops flying, or any other circumstance), the research team will be "constantly tagging insects during the flowering period," smiles Pérez Alfocea.

DARkWIN project will generate the first pre-commercial tomato varieties based on the biological process of pollinator-driven selection under climate change

The first experiment will be carried out on a specially designed phenotyping platform, and will be applied to a crop with 53 tomato genetic mapping lines, which will be analysed depending on bumblebee preferences.

"These lines contain segments of DNA from a more resistant wild tomato species, which will generate a database of unprecedented dimensions, including nutritional, metabolic and genetic traits of the flowers," says the researcher. The aim is to identify genes responsible for pollinator preferences and plant resistance to drought and heat stress.

First pre-commercial varieties

DARkWIN project will generate the first pre-commercial tomato varieties based on the biological process of pollinator-driven selection under climate change. This new approach "can change the current paradigm of plant screening and selection and find new pathways for breeding assisted by ecological interactions, naturally enhancing crops and ecosystem services".

Crops where the project will take place

By rescuing the ancestral traits of plants, the technology proposed by DARkWIN aims to develop new varieties, with flowers more resistant to adverse conditions, with quality and nutritional value, efficient in the use of resources, and with the capacity to create ecosystem networks.

The main application of the results is to ensure food security under adverse climatic conditions, as 75 % of food crops depend on pollinators, including 84 % of the species grown in the EU, generating 31 % of the income from agricultural production.

The project, which will run for the next three and a half years, is funded by the Pathfinder programme of the European Innovation Council (Horizon Europe). The interdisciplinary consortium includes the participation of five research centres: CEBAS-CSIC, which coordinates the project; the Centro de Automática y Robótica (CAR, CSIC-UPM); the Estación Biológica de Doñana del CSIC (EBD-CSIC); the Centro de Biotecnología y Genómica de Plantas (CBGP, CSIC-UPM); and the Instituto Max Planck Institute of Germany, as well as three companies from the agri-food sector (one French and two Spanish).

As a curiosity, the name of the project, DARkWIN, hides a little play on words. "On the one hand, the classic criterion in selection and breeding, according to which the darkest plants, with the most intense green colour, are the most resistant to the eyes of the breeder: Dark plants Win," Pérez Alfocea points out. "On the other hand, it contains the Darwinian concept of natural selection based on ecological interactions, in this case, by pollinating insects.