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5.7 million for future-proof lettuce varieties

A new 5.7 million euro research project will ensure that lettuce will be more resistant to pathogens and climate effects and will grow better in new cultivation systems. Together with other Dutch researchers, Leiden biologists will map the characteristics and genetic information of 500 wild and cultivated lettuce species. “We want to combine the best qualities of those lettuce varieties into new varieties that will ultimately end up in our salads.”

The LettuceKnow project received an NWO Perspectief subsidy of four million euros. In addition, six large plant breeding companies will contribute 1.7 million euros to the project. The consortium also has twelve academic research groups, among which Utrecht University, who will coordinate the project, and Leiden professor Remko Offringa, who leads one of the four research lines.

The genomes of a number of important food crops, such as maize and tomato, have been well-mapped. Breeders have already benefited greatly from this knowledge by developing new crop varieties. “But for lettuce this has not been the case, even though it is one of the larger vegetable crops', says project leader Guido van den Ackerveken (Utrecht University). The Dutch Center for Genetic Resources has more than 2000 cultivated and wild lettuce species from the Mediterranean and South-West Asia. The LettuceKnow consortium will map a wide range of properties for 500 lettuce lines, to develop a strong knowledge base that will give an enormous boost to research into the growth and resilience of leafy crops.

Plant architecture

Breeders want resilient lettuce plants that form well shaped heads and a good root system. Lettuce plants should not bolt too quickly and the head should remain firm for a long time after harvesting. Leiden professor of Plant Developmental Genetics Remko Offringa leads the research line in LettuceKnow in which scientists will identify the genes responsible for these architectural properties. They will also determine how environmental factors such as temperature and light affect these traits. “It will be interesting to see whether we can draw on our knowledge on architecture from the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana for lettuce”, says Offringa. “At the same time, we hope to identify new developmental mechanisms that are specific for leafy crops”.

Big data

Researchers will use information about the 500 lettuce lines that their colleagues have brought together earlier in the project. For each lettuce line, the activity of about 30,000 lettuce genes will be mapped, plant properties will be accurately measured and responses to pathogens, salt stress and other environmental factors will be determined. “This will provide a lot of important information about how lettuce grows and how resilience is regulated”, says Van den Ackerveken. “By linking genetic information to data analysis we will be able to identify the underlying hereditary traits.”

Vertical farming

Offringa and fellow researchers will examine which of these traits can be applied in lettuce breeding. This will result in lettuce varieties that can grow optimally during dry and warm conditions, in saline soil or in multi-layer cultivation under LED lighting - so-called ‘vertical farming’. “We have already set up a growth room with LED lighting for another NWO project”, says Offringa, “which we can also use for our lettuce research. This fits in perfectly with the Greenport Hub initiative of the Leiden-Delft-Erasmus Center for Sustainability”. Additionally, the knowledge arising from the project will be more broadly applicable than just lettuce breeding. According to Van den Ackerveken, “Lettuce is member of the composite family, which is the largest of all plant families, but not a single species from that family has been studied as intensively as we will do for lettuce. The knowledge we acquire during LettuceKnow will therefore be useful for research on other plants from that family, such as endive and sunflower, but also for other leafy vegetables in general.”

This project is a collaboration between Utrecht University, Wageningen University, Leiden University, University Medical Center Utrecht, Center for Genetic Resources,  Bejo Zaden,  ENZA Seeds, Rijk Zwaan, Syngenta, Takii & Co. Ltd., and Vilmorin & Cie.

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