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By understanding plant genomes, we can generate new crops that are disease resistant, drought-proof, less reliant on chemicals and more nutritious

The importance of plants to life on Earth is staggering. Plants are the source of all humankind’s food and produce 98% of the oxygen we breathe. Along with the microbes they interact with, plants contain vast amounts of information that we study and translate into practical solutions. This is the foundation of our Healthy Plants, Healthy People, Healthy Planet (HP³) vision.

Key to unlocking these benefits is a deeper understanding of the genetic variation of plants and how to deploy that variation for the benefit of sustainable agriculture. 

Advances in genomics, bioinformatics and interpretation of large data sets in the last two decades have unlocked opportunities to harness the power of plants to shape and to help combat the challenges of climate change, human health threats and food security.

By understanding plant genomes, we can generate new crops that are disease resistant, drought-proof, less reliant on chemicals and more nutritious.

Where previously we examined single genomes to uncover reactive solutions, technological advances mean that – with the correct infrastructure – we begin to breed plants predictively to create pre-emptive solutions before emerging threats have a chance to occur.

Extending these genomic analyses to soil microbes will generate biologically based solutions to key issues including the degradation of soil health, the protection of plant health and the discovery of new antibiotics to protect human health.

Healthy Plants: Protecting and improving food sources

The challenge that must be overcome in order to solve the food security crisis is complex. We must find a way to increase the yield and nutritional value of crops, while reducing the area of land, volume of water and number of chemicals required to achieve this.

Two approaches are central to meeting this challenge: improving disease resistance and increasing yields.

Reducing crop loss to diseases

Improving disease resistance in plants has a direct positive impact on yields, as fewer crops are destroyed by damaging pathogens.

In 2016 global trade saw the wheat blast fungus, typically isolated to South America, arrive in Bangladesh, where it destroyed 15,000 hectares of wheat, resulting in yield losses of 25-30% and threatening wheat production across South Asia.

As climate change enables pathogens to spread across the world to regions where major food crops are grown, the need for effective disease resistance will only increase. Advances in genomic sequencing allow us to map not only the genetic make-up of plants, but also that of pathogens. This allows us to identify ways to harness strategic genetic advantages of the plants we aim to protect, boosting immunity to these pathogens.

In 2016 the wheat blast fungus arrived in Bangladesh, where it destroyed 15,000 hectares of wheat, resulting in yield losses of 25-30%

Wheat Blast devastated field alongside resistant one Bangladesh
Wheat Blast devastated crop, alongside a resistant, healthy one. Bangladesh

Using genetics to improve crop yields

It has been estimated that only 10% of the genetic potential within wheat has been exploited to date because of the complex nature of the wheat genome.

Advances in genomics will enable a closer understanding of plants and a greater ability to develop revolutionary new varieties of crops that feed more people with fewer inputs.

With improved connectivity, enhanced scientific capabilities and closer coordination, we are seeing greater numbers of global collaborations to improve the yields, resilience and nutritional value of wheat, which is second only to rice as a source of calories consumed worldwide.

It has been estimated that only 10% of the genetic potential within wheat has been exploited to date

The CEPAMS partnership between the John Innes Centre and the Chinese Academy of Sciences is one of the most advanced Sino-UK collaborations in the life sciences and is exploring how plant-microbe interactions can boost yields and how plants’ molecular reactions to environmental stresses such as drought or heat can be harnessed to improve crop resilience.

New technologies are now allowing us to move from the prescriptive to the predictive – enabling preventative work to neutralise emerging threats before they can become a real danger.

The ways in which plants interact with microbes in their natural environments provide valuable information that can be harnessed to develop antibiotics, vaccines, and other clinical products to combat existing and emerging threats to human health.

Healthy People: Protecting humanity from disease and unlocking the health benefits of plants and microbes

The ways in which plants interact with microbes in their natural environments provide valuable information that can be harnessed to develop antibiotics, vaccines, and other clinical products to combat existing and emerging threats to human health.

Advanced imaging and genomic sequencing techniques allow us to mine plants for substances that inhibit damaging microbes – such as plant pathogens or even human disease-causing agents.

This field has already delivered information and solutions contributing to responses to diseases such as zika virus and polio. The potential to deploy this to other viral threats to human health is vast.

New technologies are now allowing us to move from the prescriptive to the predictive – enabling preventative work to neutralise emerging threats before they can become a real danger. The need for these interventions will only grow as climate-induced epidemiological unpredictability increases.

Healthy Planet: harnessing the power of plants and microbes to combat climate change

In recent decades, a near-inverse relationship has developed between the health of the environment and crop outputs. As the latter has improved, the former has declined. Plant and microbial science offer a route to decoupling these trends.

Understanding plant genes and their environmental interactions

Key to reducing the level of inputs required in agriculture is finding ways to improve the amount of nutrients that plants absorb from their surroundings.

If plants can absorb greater amounts of crucial materials from their natural environment and effectively resist pathogens, then chemical inputs will decrease. Protecting soil health is a core part of these efforts, as is the genetic improvement of plants.

By sequencing multiple plant genomes, we are able to alter the effectiveness with which plants assimilate key nutrients such as nitrogen from their surrounding environment.

Understanding the relationship between genes inside plants and how they respond to their surroundings will be a pivotal step towards reducing the amount of fossil fuel-based fertilisers, pesticides and fungicides required to grow crops.

Reducing greenhouse gas emissions through greater biodiversiy and improved soil health

A promotion of plant health beyond the sphere of agriculture is vital in any effort to reduce the volume of carbon emitted into the atmosphere.

Through greater biodiversity the amount of carbon captured by plants through photosynthesis or absorbed by soil will increase, with a reciprocal reduction in the levels released into the atmosphere.

An improvement in biodiversity will be a natural consequence of a lower reliance on chemical inputs and more sustainable agriculture.

As more efficient land use due to greater crop yields increases, and soil damage caused by chemicals decreases, biodiversity and soil health will improve, enabling a greater volume of carbon to be sequestered.

A promotion of plant health beyond the sphere of agriculture is vital in any effort to reduce the volume of carbon emitted into the atmosphere

1

Global Risks: Why we need to act now

We have a rapidly closing window of time in which to address three critical challenges facing society and the planet that sustains us

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HP³ in Action

We are uniquely positioned to drive scientific advances that will solve many of the world’s biggest environmental and health challenges

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A new UK hub

HP³ is an ambitious, collaborative call to action needed to meet these global challenges