Overview and Objectives

The SPOT-ITN addresses a significant problem in agriculture using state-of-the-art research approaches and simultaneously educates a group of young talented researchers at the highest international level to prepare them for leading positions in academia, the private sector and society at large. The majority of our food supply (i.e. grains and fruits) is the direct product of sexual reproduction of flowering plants, which is a heat-sensitive process. Thus the current increase of the global temperature poses a major threat to agriculture. While most of the crop plants can survive temperature increases during their vegetative growth periods, the reproduction processis highly sensitive to both, short-term increased as well as mild chronic high temperature conditions. Within the reproductive stage, the development of the male gametophyte (pollen) has been shown to be the most sensitive process.

In view of this, future sustainability of crop reproduction requires the availability of crop varieties providing improved performances under increased ambient temperature conditions. Thus, efficient strategies are needed to accelerate the exploration of stress response mechanisms; and to increase the pace and efficiency of screenings under various environmental conditions to facilitate breeding of tolerant varieties. Consequently, the major objective of the research program is to establish a network of excellent research groups, which will explore the molecular basis of heat stress responses (HSR) and thermotolerance in pollen; and which will develop resources to support the breeding of heat tolerant varieties. The network will focus on the crop plant tomato to increase the synergy between the subprojects. The obtained insights are expected to add new aspects to the fundamental understanding of plant adaptation to changing environmental conditions and to be transferable to other crops in the long run. The participating groups bring in expertise for different aspects of the workflow and provide the required state-of-the-art technology platform. This involves facilities for plant growth, high throughput DNA sequencing, metabolomic and proteomic analyses and cell biological and biochemical techniques. The proposed projects have a high collaborative character with focus on the well defined questions. The industrial partners will play a central role by offering technological expertise, plant cultivars and the reflection on the research with respect to its commercial relevance. The ITN is expected to lead to long-term collaboration of the participating groups.

The objectives of SPOT-ITN are:
1. to provide training for early stage researchers in modern plant biology with focus on: i) modern techniques and cutting edge research; ii.) interdisciplinary and trans-national research; iii.) complementary skills; and iv.)integration in European research networks. The crossover between academic and applied elements represents a major gap in most university-based PhD education programs, although the demand on scientists able to perform fundamental research with relation to applied questions is tremendous for both, public and private sector. Thus, integrative and interdisciplinary education is of major relevance for the scientific community in Europe, and such programs can only be initiated in close cooperation with the private sector, which defines the demand and content of the education. Thus SPOT-ITN will contribute to establish new educational strategies to fortify future European research.

2. to establish a research team to develop BIOMARKERS for pollen thermotolerance (PTT) in crops by comprehensive description of the molecular basis of PTT. This will include comparison of the HSR in existing cultivars and mutant lines with contrasting levels of PTT, characterisation of mutants for important players in the HSR isolated from TILLING populations, and generation of near isogenic lines. Here, a focus is placed on the identification and characterization of factors that contribute to PTT (e.g., specific Heat Stress Factors), posttranslational modifications e.g. of histones, and the identification of quantitative trait loci (QTL). The complementary approach targets the phenotypic analysis of a large set of tomato genotypes with distinct PTT at transcriptomic, proteomic, metabolomic and physiological level, which requires the coordinated work in a consortium. This strategy is reflected in the individual projects of the participating groups and relies on inter-disciplinary high-throughput analyses involving advanced approaches in molecular biology, genetics, cell biology, biochemistry, biophysics and bioinformatics, which are in parts provided by the partners of the private sector. The designed project is expected to lead to a long-term collaboration of the participating groups including industry, and the development of strategies transferable to other crops of commercial interest. The proposed research will contribute to the basic understanding of PTT, and establishing BIOMARKERS will enable the development of high-throughput screening assays for PTT usable in future breeding efforts. Testing of these markers in other crop plants could in the long run establish a general set of TT markers.