Ideotypes for yield in a changing climate – drought stress and beyond at Bioenergy Genomics 2017

Jack Bailey-Bale looks ahead to the challenges that climate change will pose for growing bioenergy crops.

Across many regions of the world, climate change is predicted to reduce precipitation and increase the variability of rainfall. The enhanced chance of drought is likely to have devastating impacts on crop growth. On Monday afternoon Bioenergy Geonomics will address this reality, presenting research concentrating on developing ideotypes for yield in a changing climate, with particular attention on drought stress.

Miscanthus under the sun
Miscanthus under the sun. Photo: Canva.

Controlled environment studies and field trials with induced drought conditions have been widely employed across a number of bioenergy crops to determine their stress response. A variety of strategies are discussed within this session that accompanies empirical selection for crops with desirable characteristics. Advances in plant physiology and simulation modelling, as well as high-throughput phenotyping and advanced molecular techniques are enabling faster, well informed and more cost-effective selection of promising genotypes. Cutting-edge phenotyping combined with next generation sequencing techniques such as quantitative trait loci mapping, genotyping by sequencing, genome wide association studies and RNA sequencing are being used to identify genetic variation and differences in gene expression between genotypes and treatments. Candidate gene lists can in turn be generated, consisting of genes potentially responsible for observed traits conferring improved tolerance to drought.

The gene networks underpinning responses to an abiotic stress such as drought are often complex. Multiple genes, each with little effect, can therefore determine measurable characteristics, for example yield and water use efficiency. Understanding the genetic information associated with differences in phenotype will in turn provide valuable data to feed into breeding pipelines for improved drought tolerance, along with the continuation of yield enhancement. Comprehending the heritability of beneficial traits will also be integral to the production of crops tolerant to projected climates. Furthermore, recent advances in plant breeding techniques could be hugely influential on the generation of such environmentally resilient bioenergy crops, as new techniques are capable of targeting candidate genes with high precision.

The collection of research on an international scale signifies the realised importance of generating bioenergy crops capable of not just surviving, but maintaining high yields when exposed to drought conditions. This notion is emphasised when considering large-scale energy production from bioenergy crops will require the use of marginal lands, as not to compete with food production for a rapidly expanding human population. It is therefore essential that selection for genetic improvement of the crops also incorporates tolerance to abiotic stresses, such as drought.