20 August 2017 - Aberystwyth

The WATBIO Consortium is working with the Miscanthus for Wales project at IBERS to provide WATBIO participants and all associates of WATBIO with the opportunity to see how miscanthus-based value chains are developing in Wales.  This is part of the WATBIO effort to provide training and career development opportunities for project members and others.  WATBIO partners can participate in the IBERS Miscanthus for Wales Event on Thursday 28 September conveniently following the WATBIO Conference at Oxford.

This event will be a good opportunity to see how a research organization contributes to developing value chains.

Those interested should contact Dr Donal Murphy-Bokern ( ) for further information on travel and accommodation arrangements can be made. 


13 October 2016 – Mallorca, Spain

The 4th WATBIO Annual Consortium Meeting marks significant research breakthroughs

The 4th WATBIO Annual Consortium Meeting that ended today has shown that the project is delivering above expectations in most areas of its research.  The Consortium will now concentrate on completing the remaining ongoing experiments and gaining the most out of the results.  The meeting was attended by 34 WATBIO scientists and two members of the Science Advisory Committee.

This year's annual meeting concentrating on reporting the emerging research results as the project approaches its closing phase.  Very significant scientific research progress was reported in all three of the WATBIO crop types: poplar, miscanthus and arundo.  The main experimental phases are now complete and a very large data resource has been generated which is now being analysed to gain in-depth understanding of responses to drought and how genetics might be used to improve crop performance under drought stress. 

Drought tolerance is a very complex set of traits and a highlight of the meeting was the reports from Wageningen University on metabolic network reconstruction made possible by the huge data resources in WATBIO.  Fred van Eeuwijk described how we might now identify ‘hub genes’ that play key roles in the metabolism of drought responses.   The genetic basis of variation in the yield potential of poplar has been thoroughly investigated.  In arundo, the consortium is now placed to greatly increase our knowledge of Arundo donax.  The collaboration between Geneticlab and the University of Bologne has resulted in the generation of a huge range of new clones in this species that until now lacked diversity.

The Consortium is now entering its fifth and final year with high expectations of realizing very significant scientific and practical achievements. The coordinator Gail Taylor summarized that the main challenge now is to deliver on the huge potential for research publication and provide support to breeders using these research achievements that have exceeded all expectations.  

Dr Silvio Salvi reporting on the development of Arundo donax.


20 April 2016, University of Tuscia, Italy

A great educational opportunity: WATBIO supports the PEPG Techniques Workshop provided by the Society of Experimental Biology.


Environmental field techniques for scaling molecular physiology to leaf and crop canopy

Plant Environmental Physiology Group (PEPG) Techniques Workshop

12 - 16 September 2016, Lisbon, Portugal


At its recent meeting in Paris, the WATBIO Executive Committee highlighted that the Plant Environment Physiology (PEPG) Techniques Workshop to be held in 12 – 16 September in Lisbon this year provides a first-class opportunity to the consortium.  Long term impact through embedding high quality education and training opportunities in WATBIO is a priority. This Workshop uniquely concentrates on scientific and technical topics that are all of great interest to WATBIO (PEPG Workshop details). 

The Workshop will be run by Plant Environmental Physiology Group (PEPG) which is one of the special interest groups of Society of Experimental Biology (SEB) and British Ecological Society (BES)).

Linked to work package 8, this Workshop will provide a unique opportunity for MSc, PhD students and all early career researchers to gain training in plant ecophysiology techniques at the leaf and canopy level under field conditions. Participants will also learn key techniques in micrometeorology, eddy covariance, and remote sensing related to plant phenotyping from internationally renowned scientists, including scientists in the WATBIO consortium.

Commenting on the subject of the Summer School, Prof. Antoine Harfouche: “WATBIO places great emphasis on providing a wide range of high-quality educational experiences for early the project’s early stage researchers.  This workshop uniquely integrates a wide range of techniques used to work across scales to improve all crops, including our target species”. 


10 December 2015: Southampton, UK

Today, Prof. Gail Taylor announced that her laboratory has won a NERC studentship grant that will build on the work of WATBIO.  The student will use Genome Editing approaches, already reported in poplar, and investigate the impact of candidate genes for yield and drought tolerance. Alongside this, new and novel remote techniques using drones for better field phenotyping at our field site in Italy will be developed. This additional reseach will therefore build on WATBIO develop both cutting edge molecular and field phenotyping skills, See more under Opportunities


30 November 2015, Brusno (Poland) and Southampton, (UK)

WATBIO field visits in Poland reveal a new scale in poplar production

The WATBIO consortium has just released a short report of visits to poplar plantations in Poland that use planting material from the WATBIO partner Alasia.  Apart from the benefits of site inspections, these visits over two days provided an opportunity to discuss the practical realities of integrating genetic research into efforts to improve these tree crops.  The full report is attached here.


25 September 2015 – Brussels, Belgium

Fostering entrepreneurship in the WATBIO consortium

Today, WATBIO and the BIOINNO joined forces to support the development of entrepreneurship as part of WATBIO education and early stage researcher support programme. 

Antoine Harfouche (UNITUS) who is leader of WP8 in WATBIO is also coordinator of the EU Project BIOINNO which is funded under the EU’s Lifelong Learning Programme.  This connection is being used to develop Entrepreneurship Training in WATBIO.    

BIOINNO’s entrepreneurship education is about promoting creative thinking, opportunity recognition, risk taking, strategic planning, problem-solving, and all types of communication and negotiation skills that are key to building new ventures. It is based on a new Learning and Teaching Model designed to inspire and engage students and researchers in the fundamental aspects of an entrepreneurial mindset.  Today in Brussels BIOINNO hosted a conference to explore the ways in which we can creatively interweave our research interests into business activity through entrepreneurship. In a keynote address, Antoine Harfouche show-cased WATBIO as an example of a project that ranges from fundamental biological research through to business innovation and development.

Donal Murphy-Bokern reflected on the relevance of BIOINNO for WATBIO: “In research, money is turned into knowledge.  In innovation in a research environment, knowledge is turned into money.  I learned a lot about the characteristics and role of entrepreneurial behavior in both processes.  Entrepreneurs are people who are driven to make a difference to those around them and are essential in both the public and private sectors.  The results of BIOINNO have great potential to enhance education and training in WATBIO”.

Antoine Harfouche is looking to the future in WATBIO: “Some of the educational materials we have generated in BIOINNOI are very relevant to the challenges and opportunities in WATBIO.  The next step is to develop a programme of materials and activity tailored to the WATBIO consortium”. The process of tailoring BIOINNO to the needs of the WATBIO consortium could be a pilot for a wider programme of reaching other research consortia, for example in Horizon 2020”.


24 September 2015 – Crete, Greece

Reports of good research progress and plans for commercial development at the Third Annual Consortium Meeting

The Third Annual WATBIO Consortium meeting ended today at the University of Crete in Greece.  Thirty-five participants attended the three-day meeting in Crete and reported on the progress of all the research work packages.  This year’s Annual Consortium Meeting focused on the progress of individual work packages with a number of side meetings addressing specific parts of the collaboration.  In addition, the project internal Research Users’ Forum was progressed with a keynote address from Magnus Hertzberg from SWETREE about the commercialization of intellectual property on poplar genomics.

As part of Task 6.4 on socio-economic assessments, the University of Crete conducted an internal Focus Group event to examine how WATBIO scientists see the research and policy landscape developing in the future. 

At the close of the meeting, the coordinator Gail Taylor summarized progress: “We are doing well and we want to do even better; all the major research tasks are progressing well and our work on exploitation with our commercial partners is developing into a complete suite of commercial opportunities”.    



10 September 2015 – University of Hohenheim, Germany

The Perennial Biomass Crops for a Resource-constrained World Conference

European biomass research was the focus of the internation conference ‘Perennial Biomass Crops for a Resource-constrained World’ that ended today at the University of Hohenheim in Germany.  WATBIO is one of five projects on biomass funded by the European Union that have worked together on the organization of this meeting.  The other projects are OPTIMISC, OPTIMA, GrassMargins and FIBRA. 

The presentations brought together a wide range of results of agronomic and biological research.  Establishing sustainable and economically viable value chains in a resource-constrained world was an underlying theme.  Tomasz Calikowski from the European Commission outlined measures the EC is taking to support the development of the sustainable biomass supplies needed for a new industrialisation of Europe using biological resources.  Subsequent presentations emphasized the need for diverse solutions that protect resources.  The meeting as a whole was characterized by reports into a great diversity of cropping options and uses from native perennial pasture grasses in northern Europe to African fodder cane for semi-arid areas.  Using marginal lands to produce biomass while minimizing competition with food production has advantages of course but the farm-level economic needs careful assessment as the lower cost of marginal land may not always offset the effects of lower yields compared with crops grown on better land. 

While the meeting focused on the results of the EU research, there were several presentations from outside Europe including a very wide-ranging key note address from Xinguang Zhu from the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Science which explored the consequences for biomass productivity of changes to various canopy parameters.

The meeting ended with a discussion with a panel of the leaders of the project consortia that organized the meeting, moderated by Donal Murphy-Bokern from WATBIO.  The research consortia that organized the conference represent a public investment in research of about 30 million Euros.  If we return in 10 years will be we able to point to social, economic and environmental impact that adequately rewards this investment?  Prof. Gail Taylor emphasized the need to improve the species we already know are well adapted to European conditions and which are proven in producing biomass.   Overall, the discussion was characterized by realistic optimism that the range of cropping options identified in the research reported will be developed into locally-adapted solutions exploiting marginal land. 

Abstract of all presentations are available at  A book and a special issue of Global Change Biology Bioenergy



8 June 2015, Florence Italy

WATBIO makes a strong contribution to the IUFRO Tree Biotechnology Meeting, Florence, 8-12 June 2015

Research partners from WATBIO working on poplar genomics and genetics made several presentations at the IUFRO Tree Biotechnology meeting in Florence, 8-12 June 2015 (, disseminating important findings from the first two years of research. This international meeting, that draws researchers and industrialists from across the globe, provides an expert forum for WATBIO scientists to showcase their research. The presenters included postdoctoral researcher Dr Hazel Smith and PhD student Mike Allwright from University of Southampton. Hazel described her research on the adaptation strategies of contrasting black poplar selected from across Europe and the mechanisms employed to cope with moderate drought stress. The aim of this research is to identify useful gene targets to underpin future poplar breeding for bioenergy on marginal lands unsuitable for food production and these candidate genes are currently being investigated using transgenic approaches in Populus by our industrial partner STT.

Complementing this, Mike Allwright described his research on Genotyping By Sequencing (GBS), part of a Genome Wide association Study (GWAS)  in a large black poplar collection where more than 600 unique genotypes are planted in a control versus drought experiment at Franco Alasia, northern Italy. This study has revealed significant associations for genes underlying yield.  Dr Henning Wildhagen from University of Gottingen described a comprehensive study of the transcriptome of three genotypes of black poplar selected from contrasting environments across Europe, revealing significant re-programming of the transcriptome in response to drought. Work on genetical genomics and the impacts of drought on an F2 mapping population of black poplar was also presented by the University of Tuscia.



20 April 2015, Paris

The WATBIO Executive Committee focuses on long-term impact

Today, Prof. Gail Taylor opened the WATBIO Executive Committee consortium in Paris by leading a discussion about how to maximise access to the project’s experimental materials for research and development after WATBIO ends.  She made the point clearly that WATBIO partners have brought together a large amount of genetic resources and research facilities to study poplar, miscanthus and arundo.  The Executive Committee discussed how best to develop this research facility for the future.    

The establishment of the WATBIO field research site at Savigliano (Italy) with a total of 12,000 poplar trees and several hundred arundo plants is one of the project’s most significant practical achievements. The site is equipped with extensive drip irrigation facilities, sensors and a weather station. The poplar and arundo will mature as the WATBIO research project progresses. Gail emphasised that this unique field research facility is now available to researchers outside the consortium.

13 January 2015, San Diego, CA, USA.

WATBIO represented International Plant and Animal Genome XXIII

The 23rd International Plant and Animal Genome Conference is now reaching its closing stages.  This is the largest meeting of genetic scientists in the world. 

Research from WATBIO on poplar was presented by Mike Allwright and Hazel Smith of Southampton.  In addition, the miscanthus team from Aberystwyth made two presentations on research supporting the genetic improvement of miscanthus.

Mike Allwright from Southampton set out progress in elucidating the genetic basis of traits for bioenergy in Populus nigra using an association genetics approach the mapping population.  This association mapping work shows very clearly how WATBIO builds on previous projects and how the collaboration in the consortium allows complex large field experiments to be conducted.  The aim is to link important characteristics in the field with genotypic data, much of which already exists, within a large population of trees.  Twenty genes have already been identified.  The presentation set out how DNA sequencing will now be used in the population to greatly increase the number of markers and permit more extensive mapping.  The resultant marker-trait associations further the development of advanced breeding techniques. The summary of Mike’s presentation is available here:

From work on the same trees, Hazel Smith presented results of the examination of the leaf characteristics of three contrasting clones.  At one extreme, a Spanish clone has characteristics associated with survival under drought: small leaves with few stomata.  In contrast, an Italian clone has large leaves and many stomata, traits associated with adaptation to wetter conditions.  The research has identified 3,352 genes that are expressed differently in these clones.  In addition, the trees differed in how 456 genes were expressed under drought.  Hazel reported that the WATBIO team has identified mechanisms which maintain growth under drought conditions.  This will make it possible to improve poplar for production under water-stressed conditions.  The summary of Hazel’s presentation is available here:   

On the miscanthus side, Gancho Slavov ( ) and  Anne Maddison (( ) presented overviews of the work at Aberystwyth which includes the miscanthus research in WATBIO.  Improvement to the crop through conventional breeding programmes is hampered by the extended time it takes for the progeny to reach maturity when crosses can be screened for desirable biomass traits.  Molecular marker technologies are being developed for miscanthus but are still some years away from deployment.  As an alternative, the discovery of metabolic biomarkers that provide a means to screen new crosses for yield or quality traits could be of tremendous value to perennial breeding programmes.

In addition, early linkage and association mapping studies have yielded dozens of putative marker-trait associations, some of which were detected using different approaches and/or in multiple species. Furthermore, the moderate to high accuracy of genomic selection across a wide range of phenotypic traits suggests that the implementation of this approach may be feasible in the short to medium term. The presentations also highlighted the efforts to deliver this research into practice through the publicly funded miscanthus breeding programme.


29 October 2014, San Servolo (Venice), Italy

Second annual consortium meeting successfully completed

The WATBIO consortium has just completed its second annual consortium meeting marking the end of its second year.  The meeting was hosted by the WATBIO partner IGA Technology Services at the Venice International University Centre on the island of San Servolo near Venice.  All 22 partner organisations were represented with 52 participants.

Prof. Michele Morgante (IGA Technology Services) reporting on Next Generation Sequencing work


The meeting focused on the progress of the research in the second year.  Consortium members made 28 oral presentations and presented 11 posters providing a detailed account of the research so far.  Summarising the progress to date, the coordinator Prof. Gail Taylor highlighted the strength and effectiveness of the collaboration and its practical achievements which include 12,000 poplar trees and hundreds of miscanthus plants established in experiments to examine the genetic basis of drought tolerance.  Several million DNA and RNA sequence reads have been done and the data from these are now the focus of an intensive research effort led by Wageningen University looking for DNA sequences associated with particular responses to drought.  She also reminded the consortium of the challenging nature of breeding for drought tolerance and highlighted the importance of the multi-disciplinary work combining plant physiology, genetics and modelling of genetic responses to support practical breeding.  Collaboration with other EU research consortia has reveal opportunities for synergies which will benefit the development of the giant reed (Arundo donax) in particular. 

Franscesco Fabbrini (Tuscia) and Daniele Trebbi (Geneticlab) discussing the development of arundo


Other highlights include the clear evidence of large educational benefits.  Prof. Antoine Harfouche of the University of Tuscia reported on a successful programme of educational workshops.  The early progress in these has supported the research effort through the development of skills used later directly in the research.  Early-stage researchers were prominent in reporting the research at the meeting.  Mike Allwright reported on significant progress he has made in genome wide association analysis (GWAS) in poplar. As is a PhD student at Southampton University he highlighted the positive educational experience the collaborative EU research provides through a combination of direct contact with a very wide range on international experts and the collaboration with people developing these crops commercially.


Chiara Evangelistella (Tuscia) studying one of the poster presentations. 

The meeting systematically recorded the progress of the research


Leading the research on environmental and crop physiological impacts, Prof. Bill Davies emphasised the need to now build on the success of these two years with a concerted effort to integrate research findings and focus results on practical crop development.  This echoes contributions from commercial partners such as SWETREE who are now developing plans to exploit the emerging results.

Participants after two intense days reviewing and planning the WATBIO research



Aberystwyth  12 September 2014 

Fourth WATBIO Science Workshop completed successfully

The fourth WATBIO Science Workshop was held at AU-IBERS (Aberystwyth University) on 11th and 12th September attended by 18 scientists.  Based on nine sessions over the two days, the event brought together representatives from industry and academia and focused on raising the capability to use phenomics. Attending were scientists from two EU consortia: WATBIO and the European Plant Phenotyping Network, and from a number of manufacturers of equipment for physiological and phenotypic analysis of plants.  The programme is provided here.

The workshop was in two parts. Part 1 included hands-on demonstrations of software for metabolomics data analysis and for extracting data from digital images. Part 2 show-cased equipment and approaches for plant analysis including how the technology is applied in breeding programmes. The programme included a tour of the phenomics centre at Aberystwyth and demonstrations of new and premarket technologies including laser imaging and fluorescence technologies. 

The main outcome of the workshop for most attendees was the personal benefits of hands-on experience of software for data and image analysis plus the chance to discuss with a wide audience in a friendly informal atmosphere the approaches to phenomics and metabolomics.  For the companies it was a chance to show their equipment and demonstrate how it is being used in the context of plant phenotyping.   Hazel Smith from Southampton commented: “This third WATBIO workshop gave us direct insight and hands-on experience with this cutting-edge technology.  The lead that Aberystwyth has in this area is a great asset to the project”.

The academic participants had the opportunity to see how phenomics is applied and the types of approaches and equipment that are currently available and that is in development for the future.  This fourth workshop complemented the earlier workshops on statistics and the handling of sequencing data.


4 August, 2014.  Tuscia, Italy

Details of the fourth WATBIO Skills Workshop announced

The WATBIO consortium has just announced its fourth Skills Workshop.  It will take place on 11-12 September 2014 at Aberystwyth University in the UK.  Details are available here.

The subject of this workshop is to provide researchers with an opportunity to increase and refine their knowledge of advanced phenomics with particular emphasis on getting first-hand experience of the advanced phenomics facilities at the newly opened UK National Phenomics Centre at Aberystwyth.  Phenotyping is the observation and measurement of plants as grown.  It is the cornerstone of genetic improvement through selection with breeders selecting desired strains by observing growth, vigour, incidences of disease etc. and of course yield.  Modern precision phenotyping combines precise management of the plants’ environment and advanced imaging to measure the responses of genotypes to different conditions.  The growth of hundreds of plants, each treated precisely, can be studied in these facilities. 

In addition to imaging, observations include sampling to examine the metabolic responses of plants thus linking the detailed observations of differences between plants to differences in the underlying genome.  This type of studies lies at the heart of WATBIO and so the workshop will give participants first-hand insight into how this type of research is conducted.

This will be the fourth in our series of workshops providing a unique professional development experience to graduate students, post-docs and early career researchers engaged in research in plant sciences. 

Education and the development of early-stage scientists is an important part of WATBIO.  The Workshops are open to all scientists interested in this topic.

The workshop is organised by Antoine Harfouche, John Doonan, Marie Neal, Paul Robson and Roland Pieruschka.  Contact Dr Donal Murphy-Bokern ( or Prof Antoine Harfouche ( to obtain registration details. 


13 July 2014, Southampton


Scientists from the major FP7 biomass projects met in Dublin on 25 June to explore opportunities for mutual support between their projects. This took place at the joint EPSO-FESPB meeting of Plant Biologists in Dublin.  Each team outlined their research and this was followed by a discussion about how they can each benefit from closer ties. 

Complementing WATBIO, Grass Margins is focussed on northern European grass crops, with OPTIMISC working on miscanthus and OPTIMA works on a range of crops including two of the three WATBIO crops: miscanthus and arundo.

The meeting enabled us to identify common ground.  The strengths of each project were identified and the opportunities for synergies across the project group were explored.  For example in OPTIMA, large genetic collections of arundo have been brought together and are being investigated at several locations.  Genotypes of miscanthus that were identified in OPTIMISK are now being used in WATBIO. Several projects are subjecting the main biomass crops to stress to identify stress-tolerant genotypes.  

Gail Taylor (WATBIO coordinator): “We’ve planned this meeting to coincide with EPSO-FESPB  conference in Dublin which is one of Europe’s leading plant science events.  It has given us a great opportunity to tease out how the projects can be mutually supporting and it is our intention to make this an annual event so that we can maintain this focus on synergies between our projects”.

The cross-project meeting was followed by a special meeting of the early stage researchers from these projects where post-graduate researchers in particular presented their research to each other.  This was followed by intensive discussion.

Marta Malinowska (Aberystwyth): “These cross-project events were very valuable in giving me a wider perspective of my research work.  Meeting other young researchers doing work which has so much in common is very enriching”.

The meeting in Dublin marked an important step in optimising the links between projects to maximise their collective impact. The project teams hope to be able to meet annually, especially involving early-stage researchers.  Some useful ideas for follow-on research, development and deployment for biomass across Europe were identified and will be explored further over the coming months.



3 April, Paris

Project Executive Committee reviews progress and prospects

The WATBIO Project Executive Committee (PEC) met 2-3 April 2014, at La Maison des Ingenieurs de L’Agro in Paris.  This second annual PEC meeting was an opportunity for the WATBIO work package leaders to review progress at the 18 month point in this 60 month project.

This is the second mid-year meeting in Paris of the management group and it again proved to be a most valuable opportunity to take stock and plan the next steps. Prof. Gail Taylor who coordinates WATBIO summed up: “Thanks to the firm foundations laid in year 1, all work packages are progressing well. Core experiments have been completed, much plant material is now in the ground and sequencing efforts on all three species are underway with the first RNA-Seq data-set now analysed."  

The WATBIO managers turned their attention in particular to the impact of the emerging research results.  The project has reached the stage where the ways impact will be supported by the various inter-connected research tasks can be planned in more detail.  Establishing solid plans for impact is a priority for the next six months before the consortium meets in Venice in early October. 

The second part of the meeting was dedicated to presentations from two related projects: ‘Biomass for the Future’ and ‘DROPS’.  Biomass for the Future is a large French national project that brings researchers and companies together to develop new sorghum and miscanthus-based supply chains (  Herman Hofte (INRA) showed that Biomass for the Future is relevant to the miscanthus work in WATBIO in how it brings together a complementary range of supply-chain actors.  

DROPS is a EU project aimed at developing novel strategies for breeding drought-tolerant and water efficient cereal crops.  François Tardieu (INRA) provided insights into results from research into the response of wheat to drought stress. His talk was inspirational for WATBIO WP leaders.  DROPS provides considerable insight to steer our work in the future.

The next PEC meeting will be in Venice in October at the second annual gathering of the consortium.


2 October 2013, Florence

WATBIO’s annual consortium meeting in Florence marks the end of a successful first year  

Forty-six scientists and technologists working in WATBIO met on 1-2 October in Florence for the first annual consortium meeting hosted by the Maruro Centritto of the Italian Centre for Research (CNR).  They met in the magnificent Accademia dei Georgofili (Academy of Georofili). The academy, which was established in 1753, is best known for promoting scholarship and discourse in the area agronomy, forestry, economy, geography, and agriculture.

Prof. Gail Taylor of Southampton University sums progress at the end of two days of discussions: “At the start of our second year, we look back on a number of significant successes.  A complex set of interconnected research activities have been effectively established and all the challenges of working in the field have been efficiently overcome; the validity of important hypotheses underlying our research has been confirmed by the early investigations; our programme of educational workshops have got off to a flying start; and we have built on the consortium’s Esprit de corps supporting a resilient and effective project team.


The consortium took stock of progress from presentations from work package leaders.  But the high point of the meeting was the presentations made by the scientists responsible for individual experiments.  “Consortium meetings need to formally review progress of each part of the project.  However it was the presentations focused on specific experiments made by the individual scientists that really brought the research to life” commented Donal Murphy-Bokern who chaired that part of the meeting.  “The commitment, enthusiasm and collegial approach of the early career researchers are a real asset to WATBIO”. 




The meeting was attended by Dr Jerry Tuskan from the National Energy Laboratory at Oak Ridge in the USA, who represented the project’s external Science Advisory Committee.   Commenting afterwards: “WATBIO is at the cutting edge of a very challenging research area and it is a delight to see how the work at Oak Ridge is being built upon in Europe.  WATBIO is very fortunate in being able to invest extensively in phenotyping to complement the sequencing work”.



20 September 2013, Udine in Italy

  Twenty scientists complete the WATBIO course on Next Generation Sequencing

Twenty scientists (including several from outside WATBIO) have just completed the WATBIO course on Next Generation Sequencing (NGS).  This three-day course, which was the second in the series of WATBIO educational workshops, was provided by IGA Technologies (Udine, Italy) in collaboration with the Instituto di Genomica Applicata (IGA) at the University of Udine.


NGS plays a central role in WATBIO.  DNA and RNA sequencing is revolutionising biology and opening up far-reaching developments in plant breeding, animal breeding and medicine.   Until the recent development of NGS, the scale and the cost of DNA or RNA sequencing meant that only a limited number of model species could be sequenced.  Work on other organisms, including almost all agricultural species, was limited. NGS is changing that and we can now read the DNA and RNA not only of agricultural species, but also of varieties of these species varying in traits of interest.  This leads to more precise and faster breeding.  This is particularly valuable in perennial woody species such as poplar, miscanthus and arundo that have long generation intervals.  



The NGS revolution is founded on radical technologies that have been rapidly commercialised by companies including Illumina-Solexa. These new sequencing machines are available to the WATBIO consortium through IGA, which is an SME partner.   The IGA will sequence DNA and RNA from different clones observed in WATBIO field experiments to vary as biomass plants, especially in terms of growth under water-stressed conditions.  This sequencing will examine the genetic basis of this variation at the level of base pairs in the DNA and in the RNA.  The sequencing produces huge data sets setting out millions of base pairs per sample. In WATBIO the task of analysing these data to identify variation at the gene level (single-nucleotide polymorphisms or SNPs) lies with all the scientists involved working with the IGA.   



This course was a hands-on course to develop skills in the analysis of NGS data in particular.   WATBIO scientist who are working with these crops in the field are now able to analyse the NGS data from the samples they provide.



 25 June 2013

  WATBIO science workshop on Next Generation Sequencing

The details of the second WATBIO science workshop have been published.  The purpose of this workshop is to widen access to Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) by improving practical knowledge and skills.  NGS is revolutionising genomics research and this practical training event offers a unique opportunity to catch-up with this rapidly developing technology.

The Workshop will be hosted by Istituto di Genomica Applicata and IGA Technology Services.  It is aimed at biologists who want to be able to perform basic analysis on next generation sequencing data analysis.  Hands-on work will be performed by simulating a real analysis.  The declared aim of the course is to enable attendees to become competent in basic NGS data analysis.

The course will start on 17th September 2013 at 2.30 p.m. and will end on 20th September at 12.30 p.m.


The workshop is open to all scientists interested in this aspect of the WATBIO project.   WATBIO scientists can resister on the project intranet.  Scientists from outside WATBIO should contact Dr. Donal Murphy-Bokern to obtain registration details.  A full description of the event is available here.

14 May, 2013 Wageningen. 

WATBIO scientists take time to examine the design and analysis of experiments

Thirty scientists joined the first WATBIO Science Workshop which ended today.  The workshop was open to all interested scientists and aimed at early career scientists in particular.The purpose of this series of five workshops is to reinforce the development of personal knowledge and skills, both for consortium members and any other scientists who wish to participate. 

This first workshop focused on the design and analysis of experiments in plant stress biology.  Using biological research at Wageningen as background, the workshop examined the design and analysis of the experiments in WATBIO.

Fred van Eeuwijk of Wageningen University who provided an overview of the design of field and greenhouse experiments made the point that experimental statistics is an area of expertise that emerged out of classical agronomic research and breeding.  It is sometimes assumed that the need to pay attention to the principles of statistics is less in controlled environment and laboratory-based experiments.  Conditions within controlled environment or greenhouse experiments can vary greatly and the control and correct analysis of variation are as important in such experiments are they are out in the field.  Advanced approaches to experimental design also increase the overall effectiveness of experiments.


The workshop was followed by detailed discussions in the WATBIO team about details of specific experiments, sample handling and data management procedures. 

Donal Murphy-Bokern: “I was particularly impressed by how well the presentation of general principles of experimental design stimulated in-depth discussion within the research team about the design and analysis of experiments in WATBIO.  It is very valuable that such wide a range of WATBIO researchers took this opportunity to discuss their experimental approaches together”.  


The first WATBIO Workshop group at Wageningen

The first WATBIO Science Workshop group at Wageningen


25 April, Paris

WATBIO scientists consider carefully at what drought tolerance means

The WATBIO Project Executive Committee met on 24 – 25 April in Paris for two days to take a close look at the fundamental direction of the research and to review progress in the first six months of the project.  In particular, the project’s work package leaders took time to examine  the concept of drought tolerance in perennial biomass crops.

The meeting commenced with a presentation from Dr Miloudi Nachit (ICARDA) who described approaches to breeding wheat to tolerate drought and cold stress when grown under arid conditions.  The ICARDA wheat breeding programme has made a major contribution to the improvement of wheat production in North Africa and the Middle East where wheat is subject to a combination of drought, heat and cold stresses. 

The responses of perennial biomass crops to drought are different from cereals in many respects.  In some ways, the challenge for WATBIO in improving perennial biomass crops is straight-forward because biomass growth is the single target, compared with in cereals where both biomass and grain development affect the yield.  Drought has very contrasting effects on the plants, depending on weather and site effects, and this makes the identifcation of strategies to increase drought tolerance very complex.  Drought tolerance can be achieved using avoidance processes whereby the plant grows fast when water is available.   Water conservation strategies that reduce transpiration from the canopy may also be used.   Deeper rooted crops extract more water from the soil during dry periods.  These characteristics are difficult to combine in a way that delivers consistent yield increases.  Drought stress in Europe is generally seasonal.  One approach is to maximize leaf growth in early spring when soil water is available, with the added benefit that the early growth gained is advantageous if there is no drought later.

It is important that the project develops a common set of measurements that will reveal variation in plants that is of value in practical breeding programs aimed at increasing biomass yield.  This fundamental consideration of drought tolerance is key to prioritising these measuements.

The long-term commercial and environmental impact of WATBIO depends on how the research contributes to practical crop improvement.  This work on identifying strategies for developing drought tolerance in poplar, miscanthus and arundo is an important part of embedding the breeders’ perspectives in the research to improve these crops in drought-prone conditions.  

This challenging work on identifying approaches to developinf drought-tolerant perennial crop continues and the results will be published.

3 April 2013

Invitation to the first WATBIO science workshop. 

Today, the WATBIO consortium confirmed the location and theme of its first workshop to be help on May 13-14, 2013 in Wageningen, The Netherlands.

The Laboratory of Genetics at  the Wageningen University is hosting the WATBIO training workshop, on May 13-14 bringing together WATBIO researchers for a series of talks and discussions about experimental design used in plant science and systems biology research.
The workshop will cover experimental design used by biologists in drought stress research and will focus on developing collaboration between biologists and statisticians.  The workshop is aimed at early career researchers in particular.

The workshop is organised by Antoine Harfouche, Joost Keurentjes, Bas Zwaan and Sabine Schnabel. The workshop is open to all scientists interested in this aspect of the WATBIO project.  Contact Dr. Donal Murphy-Bokern to obtain registration details.  A full description of the event is available here.

7 February 2013

Detailed planning of WATBIO field experiments on poplar

WATBIO scientists from Work Package 1, working on poplar, met for two days  in Gottingen to develop their ideas for the ‘core’ experiment on Populus, where more than 150 trees from a range of climatic zones across Europe will be subjected to carefully-controlled drought conditions in an experiment in France. The aim of the experiment is to examine the range of strategies employed by contrasting black poplar trees to tolerate drought. This physiological and developmental analysis will be complemented with a transcriptomics (RNA-seq), proteomics and metabolomics, providing Systems Biology insight into adaptation and bringing bioscientists together with quantitative scientists.



23 November 2012

Southampton University hosts the WATBIO kick-off meeting

Forty participants from all 22 WATBIO partners came together in Southampton to make detailed plans for the WATBIO research project.  In addition to laying the foundations for the first year of research work, it was agreed that the the project would benefit from a more detailed conceptual understanding of ‘drought tolerance’.  Prof. Bill Davies (ULANC) agreed to lead in developing ideas about the nature of drought tolerance for the WATBIO species in various environments.  This will guide the prioritisation of target trait components.

Another cross-project activity additional to that set out in the research plan is a detailed assessment by experts at Wageningen of all experimental designs to be used.  This is to help ensure that all experiments in the project are correctly designed for best use of data.

All SME partners actively participated and each presented an overview of their business interests and activities.  These partners plus some academic partners with breeding programmes are central to delivering the results of WATBIO into practice.   Their contribution to the meeting initiated the project’s Research Users’ Forum that will embed an awareness of these partners’ needs in the research process.


10 November 2012

Southampton University announces WATBIO

The University of Southampton is to lead a new €11 million EU funded research project to develop new drought tolerate crops for bioenergy and bio-products.

Professor Gail Taylor, Director of Research for Biological Sciences, is leading a new 22 partner research consortium that has gathered experts from across Europe to address the issue of crop productivity in a future climate, where episodes of drought and water shortage become increasingly common.

Water availability and quality have already been identified as the main pressure on societies as they adapt to global climate change over the coming decades.  Water plays a crucial role in determining crop yield and in the drought of 2003, crop productivity across Europe fell by over 30 per cent.  Irrigation water is scarce and not an option on much of Europe’s land and so we need crops that better withstand drought.

The research is bringing together academics, crop breeders and commercial partners with the single focus of developing new plants for this future climate. The project is concerned with non-food crops for energy use – poplar, miscanthus and giant reed – and the approach is to use the very latest technologies now available for DNA genome sequencing.  The consortium includes commercial plant breeders and so linking this very challenging biological research with its practical application is a major goal of the project.

Professor Gail Taylor comments: “Our primary aim is to characterise the vast amount of DNA variation in these under-utilised crops and harness this to produce better crops. Even five years ago this project wouldn’t have been possible as DNA sequencing was relatively expensive.  Now we are sequencing the genome of more than 50 poplar trees, sampled from across contrasting sites in Europe, including droughted southern sites. From this we can identify small changes that might give us a clue to survival in stressful environments."

“These DNA variants can then be used in breeding programmes, enabling us to harness the power of molecular biology without the necessity of GM crops.”

The project places emphasis on bringing benefits for Europe through the development of new drought tolerant varieties.  One of the partners is SweTree Technologies from Sweden which is a forest biotechnology company.  As the partner responsible for coordinating this commercialisation Dr Magnus Hertzberg from SweTree comments: “The biological research conducted since Crick and Watson revealed the structure and function of DNA has reached the point where we can expect major breakthroughs in plant breeding.  The EU funding has made possible a great collaboration between research scientists in Universities and companies like mine who deliver the benefits to society."

And benefits to society is a strong theme of the project.  Dr Donal Murphy-Bokern from Germany will coordinate the consortium’s communications and interactions with policy-makers.  He comments:  “The increasing use of biomass for energy presents Europe with two great challenges: delivering the biomass without competing with food production or reducing already stretched water resources.  This research addresses both directly”.