The WATBIO concept

The overall purpose of WATBIO is to increase the efficiency of plant breeding to provide improved biomass crops suitable for growing on drought-stressed marginal lands.  WATBIO is developing improved plant varieties suited to water-stressed environments in three non-food biomass crop species: poplar (Populus spp.); a C4 grass (Miscanthus spp.) and arundo (Arundo donax L.) which is a C3 grass of considerable potential but as yet, hardly developed.

WATBIO supports breeding with advanced molecular genetics, particularly using next generation sequencing approaches (to generate and measure allelic diversity) and molecular phenotyping.   RNA-Seq will be used for the first time in two of the three species to increase the efficiency of their breeding programmes. 

Developing drought tolerant crops is difficult.  There is a trade-off between protecting soil water and maximising crop growth.  The optimum strategy for biomass production and water conservation varies depending on the species and region.  For example, in miscanthus, the ability to survive intense drought is important, and is likely to become more important with climate change.   In all species, the ability to grow relatively well under mild stress is important in water stressed environments. Specifically, WATBIO aims to:

  1. provide a better understanding of the fundamental mechanisms determining drought tolerance;
  2. provide a database of ‘water stress response’ trait information with a modelling capability;
  3. support innovative molecular breeding/genetic optimisation;
  4. deploy GM technologies to test importance of single genes for drought tolerance;
  5. assess the performance of the new crop plants in the field;
  6. train multidisciplinary non-food crop bioscientists and technologists;
  7. maximise the impact of the project by enabling users shape the project and through commercial exploitation and dissemination; and
  8. develop and exploit synergy with other relevant research projects.


The WATBIO research and development concept


Climate change is predicted to affect rainfall and evaporation and will thus affect growth of crops. Several European regions are already under severe risk of drought, extreme temperatures, and of other types of abiotic stress linked to water. WATBIO will develop cultivars of these three biomass crops which are better able to withstand water stress. The project uses state-of the-art knowledge of physiological, molecular and genetic processes involved in plant tolerance and adaptation to water stress for developing robust crops with improved traits for biomass yield, productivity and quality under adverse and/or erratic environmental conditions.

The research examines the complex interactions between the molecular pathways of signaling related to abiotic stress with those controlling cell and organ growth. It supports integrative approaches of molecular breeding and/or genetic optimisation.  WATBIO also assesses the environmental and economic impacts of the innovation it supports.  There is also a large commitment to training scientists and technologists who will able to continue supporting the use of molecular approaches in crop improvement long into the future.