Hordeum marinum (sea barley)
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EcoSeed – the impact of environmental conditions on seed quality, from model species to crop wild relatives

Investigating how crops respond to changes in temperature and precipitation and evaluating the potential of crop wild relatives of sunflower, barley and cauliflower to enhance the future of European agriculture

Project details

Project Leader: 
Funded By: 
EU Framework 7

Objectives and outputs

The future of European agriculture

Changes in the climate of Europe by 2060 are anticipated to result in generally lower yields in warmer climates. Whilst this means a lower seed output, it is unknown how environment might alter the intrinsic physiological properties of the seeds, i.e., dormancy level, germination efficiency and lifespan. Such properties are critical not only for successful agriculture in the future, including more than 10 billion US dollars of global annual seed trade, but also for the perpetuation of crop wild relatives (CWR) in the natural environment. We aim to understand, through comparative seed biology, how genetic background, phenotypic variability and signalling pathways affect seed quality in a range of species. 

Kew scientists lead the Work Programme on translational biology that compares seed functional traits of CWR to that of crops and a model species, Arabidopsis, as affected by the maternal environment during seed development. Specifically, we are determining the seed germination threshold parameters and subsequent thermal and hydration (water use efficiency) responses during early germinative growth in a range of species from different environments. By working closely with industry, and the International Seed Testing Association, the findings are impacting on quality assurance in the trade.

Modelling seed responses in relation to climate  

Seed germination and seedling emergence is timed to maximise successful plant establishment, leading to flowering, fertilisation and seed set. But how do seeds sense time? Seed burial experiments have revealed that in the natural environment seeds accumulate thermal time (i.e. the cumulative energy) for a response above and below thresholds. These responses can be replicated and quantified in the laboratory using a range of temperature controlled incubators. The data generated is used to construct predictive models with parameters that vary between species (Durr et al., 2015). Such modelling is not limited to temperature sensitivity and is being extended to conditions of water shortage during the germination process. 

So far we have characterised the germination and seedling performance of around 20 species over a broad range of environmental conditions; revealing large differences in parameters in relation to the environment of the seed source. Ongoing studies are exploring how seed lifespan is affected by pre- and post-dispersal environments, the results of which will also be important to the seed industry.

Kew’s role

This project is based in Kew’s Comparative Plant and Fungal Biology Department and led by Hugh W. Pritchard in collaboration with three colleagues in the department and other scientists in the UK, Austria, France, Germany and Spain. 

Partners and collaborators

UK

  • Prof. Bill Finch-Savage, University of Warwick
  • Prof. Christine Foyer, University of Leeds

International

  • Prof. Ilse Kranner, University Innsbruck
  • Prof. Andreas Borner, IPK, Germany
  • Dr Annie Marion-Poll, INRA, France
  • Dr Wim Soppe, Max Planck Institute for Plant Breeding, Germany
  • Prof. Oscar Lorenzo Sánchez, Universidad de Salamanca, Spain
  • Dr Anja Krieger-Liszkay, CEA, France
  • Philippe Cayrel, Limagrain Europe

Scientific advisors

  • Prof. Derek Bewley, University Guelph, Canada
  • Prof. Alison Powell, University of Aberdeen, Scotland
  • Dr Fernando D. Goffman, ENZA Zaden
  • Capucine Malliart, GAUTIER Semences
  • Dr Paul van den Wijngaard, Syngenta

Further information

Publications

  • Dürr, C., Dickie, J.B., Yang, X-Y., Pritchard, H.W. (2015). Range of critical temperature and water potential values for the germination of species worldwide. Agricultural and Forest Meteorology 200, 222–232.