Research plan

WATBIO is coordinated by Professor Gail Taylor at the University of Southampton, @taylorlabsoton,

The overall objective of WATBIO is to enable increased breeding efficiency and genetic optimisation for drought tolerance in three specialised biomass crops: poplar, miscanthus and arundo.  The research aims to improve these three specialised biomass crops by linking breeders to advanced molecular genetics using next generation sequencing approaches and molecular phenotyping.  There are seven research work packages and two further work packages are focused on education and dissemination.


Overview of the WATBIO work plan


WP1 is focused on understanding biomass plants as dynamic systems that respond to drought at all levels from the cellular to the whole-plant level within the framework set by their genetic basis.  We are subjecting the three species to different levels of water stress using tightly controlled experimental conditions.  High throughput techniques (RNAseq provided by WP3, phosphoproteomics, metabolomics (including secondary metabolites), volatomics) in combination with advanced techniques to control and monitor photosynthesis, respiration, carbon allocation and growth as well as wood properties are being used.  There is a special focus on roots as the ability to explore deeper soil horizons for water will be important for maintaining biomass production under dry conditions.  We are investigating physiological traits such as hormone balance linked to organ growth rates and stomatal conductance as genetic targets. In WP 2, we use advanced phenomics in new facilities at AU-IBERS and a smaller facility at ULANC to identify key traits and to develop strategies to measure these traits in a wider set of germplasm.  This will improve breeding efficiency. 

WP5 utilises a three-pronged bioinformatic strategy for the selection of the top 30 candidate genes in poplar and up to 10 genes in miscanthus. The expression of the target genes is modulated in transgenic plants in order to their efficacy in terms of improved drought tolerance, biomass production and wood quality. Alongside this reverse genetics approach, in WP 4 we are taking four different approaches to linking genes to traits for drought tolerance.

WP6 provides an intensive field assessment of new germplasm performance with respect to water supply, alongside a socio-economic analysis of the likely cost benefit of reduced water use in such systems.  Given the importance of environment in determining the expression of drought tolerance traits, WP 6 will develop a network of field sites that span Europe to test G x E interaction in the proposed starting and new material emerging from the project.  This will provide a powerful dataset to be further interrogated by the model development in WP 7.

Work packages 8 and 9 are focused on impact.  WP 8 brings together our work on education, training and staff exchanges to lay the foundations of very long term impact.  Complementing this, work package 9 is focused on securing the economic, environmental and scientific impact of the research.  It coordinates all communication and exploitation activity to maximise translation of research outputs into commercial practice and to support the wider decision-making that the sustainable use of these crops on marginal drought-affected land requires.  It also puts a research users’ perspective at the heart of the project and in particular coordinates how the commercial partners shape the delivery of the research.  It will deliver a comprehensive set of communication and dissemination actives prioritised in relation to what is needed to maximise impact.