WUR participates in major international research on climate-resilient crops

June 18, 2024

Deciphering the past to develop future-proof crops. That, in a nutshell, is what the research project Ancient Environmental Genomics Initiative for Sustainability (AEGIS) entails. Wageningen University & Research is one of the participants in this international project, which has received a research grant of 78 million euros.

How did ecosystems and crops adapt to climate changes in the past? The scientists of AEGIS hope to find the answer to this question. This historical knowledge can be used to improve current agricultural methods and develop more resilient crops.

A key component of AEGIS is the establishment of a global centre for environmental genome research at the University of Copenhagen. Scientists there will analyze ancient eDNA from sediment cores. This will lead to more knowledge about agricultural history and the responses of ecosystems to changing climatic conditions over thousands of years.

Plant research in Wageningen

‘In Wageningen, as part of this project, we will analyze DNA information using new bioinformatics tools. This will help us discover which molecules plants and microbes produced in the past and what their functions were,’ explains Marnix Medema, Professor of Bioinformatics at Wageningen University & Research. ‘In the DNA of the ‘ancestors’ of important crops and in the DNA of the microbes that lived with these plants, we expect to find genes that helped protect plants against pathogens and a changing climate.’

Many of these ancient genes are probably no longer present or active in modern crops, but they could be very valuable for improving plant resilience. ‘By reintroducing some of these lost traits into modern crops, we hope to make plants less susceptible to diseases and better able to withstand the effects of climate change, such as heat and drought,’ Medema adds.

Researchers are mapping out the DNA of plants. (Photo: Guy Ackermans)
Researchers are mapping out the DNA of plants. (Photo: Guy Ackermans)

Other researchers within the project will focus on modelling past ecosystems. ‘The goal is to discover which combinations of plant species and microorganisms formed the most sustainable ecosystems in the past. This knowledge can help us create climate-resilient food systems and improve both the crops and the environments in which they grow,’ explains Professor Eske Willerslev of the University of Copenhagen.

The 78 million euro grant for AEGIS has been awarded by the Novo Nordisk Foundation and the Wellcome Trust.