The associated laboratory Center of Biotechnology and Fine Chemistry (CBQF), of the Faculty of Biotechnology of Universidade Católica Portuguesa, is one of the 28 international partners from 14 different countries that are part of the new research project INCREASE. Looking into the status of plant genetic resources of four important traditional European food legumes (chickpea, common bean, lentil and lupin), the consortium aims to develop efficient and effective conservation tools and methods to foster agricultural biodiversity in Europe. For a period of five years, the project will receive a budget of EUR 7 million from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme.
The CBQF will contribute to the evaluation of the nutritional and technological quality of legumes, to the understanding of the biochemical and physiological bases of nutrient absorption, transport and storage and to the design of genetic improvement programs that will target products quality and healthier foods. In addition, CBQF researchers will be responsible for organizing, promoting, and implementing a large scale Citizen Science experiment. This activity will test the feasibility of a participatory approach, which will complement and maximize the work of conservation of genetic resources that has been developed by germplasm banks at a European level.
This decentralized approach to biodiversity conservation will contribute to raising citizens' awareness of the importance of biodiversity and creating a strong bridge between genetic resource banks and citizens. The work will be carried out on beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L.), the most commonly consumed dried legume in Portugal, promoting the historical importance of beans for human consumption, sustainability and the environment, and extolling its role in healthier diets and in agro-ecological systems.
The conservation and valorisation of food legume genetic resources, and their utilization in European agriculture form the core development of both more sustainable agriculture and healthier food products. Indeed, in 2019 the IPCC report titled “Climate Change and Land” (https://www.ipcc.ch/report/srccl/) indicated that the transition to novel plant-based diets could “present major opportunities for adaptation and mitigation while generating significant co-benefits in terms of human health”. Human plant protein intake is on the rise in many EU regions and the market for meat and dairy alternatives is undergoing annual growth rates of 14% and 11% respectively. In order to face the increasing demand for innovative products and comply with the citizens’ demands for healthy and environmentally friendly food, novel varieties are needed and existing genetic resources in crop breeding must be properly exploited. However, especially in the field of food legumes, breeding investment and research have been modest, leading to a largely unexplored genetic potential of these important staple food crops.
This is where INCREASE intends to systematically address current shortcomings: Focusing on chickpea, common bean, lentil and lupin, the project will implement a new approach to conserve, manage and characterise genetic resources leading to benefits on different levels. It promises to attract additional private and public investment to boost food legumes breeding. Furthermore, the availability and access to well-described and well-managed collections of genetic resources capturing the full range of species is of crucial importance for reaching a competitive level regarding agronomic performance and sustainability in the EU.
INCREASE will combine cutting-edge approaches in plant genetics and genomics, high throughput phenotyping, including molecular phenotyping (e.g. transcriptomics and metabolomics), with most recent advances in information technology and artificial intelligence to boost the conservation of European crop genetic resources and promote their use and valorisation.
INCREASE is guided by the EC principles “open science, open innovation and open to the world” and will take advantage of digital technologies to make science and innovation more collaborative and global. For this purpose, the project will test a decentralised approach to the conservation and management of genetic resources by setting up a Citizen Science Experiment. “In early 2021, we will distribute more than 1,000 different common bean landraces to European citizens and farmers to be evaluated in their field, home garden or terraces” commented Marta Vasconcelos, the coordinator of INCREASE´s activities at CBQF. Citizens will gain knowledge about legumes biodiversity and get actively involved in evaluation and conservation activities, as well as in sharing and exchanging seeds in a new legal framework via a specifically developed INCREASE mobile app. This is also a major innovation for the plant genetic resources community to share benefits and promote the correct use of plant genetic resources.
The interdisciplinary INCREASE consortium covers diverse expertise, including plant genomics, bioinformatics and data analysis, information technology, phenotyping and agronomy, genebanks management, germplasm conservation and sharing and biochemistry.