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Plants - challenges and opportunities – University of Copenhagen

Plants - challenges and opportunities

Humanity faces a major challenge to ensure sufficient food for its growing population. An additional challenge is the increasing need for diverse plant products for fuel, fibres and chemicals. Life on Earth is sustained by plants. They are the basis for terrestrial ecosystems, have a profound impact on atmospheric chemistry, and support other organisms by using sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into organic matter.

Centuries of breeding for desired traits has increased the productivity of our most important food crops. However, human population growth necessitates that we produce as much food in the next 50 years as we have in the previous 10.000. Furthermore, climate change and the use of marginal lands for crop production requires that crops be more productive under extreme growth conditions, and be more resistant to pests. While these are significant challenges, plants must also be used for many other purposes. 

The demand for plant biomass for conversion to bio-energy and other high value products is rapidly increasing. The use of plants as environmentally friendly, green factories in a bio-refinery revolution needs to be exploited to reduce dependence on petroleum-based production of bioactive molecules, polymers, and chemicals.

In the future, plants that contain entirely new or increased amounts of health-promoting substances will also be important for combating lifestyle diseases that are escalating healthcare costs. Thus, there is an increasing demand for less processed, healthy foods that retain more vitamins, minerals, bioactive products and fibres. Such functional foods will enable the development of customized diets and greatly augment any future benefits of personalized medicines. 

Challenges and opportunities

The more diversified use of plants and plant-derived products in the future requires both higher yields and a radical re-positioning of the roles plants play in our daily lives and industrial processes. During the green revolution in the 1970s, the grain yield of major cereals was roughly doubled by breeding and by technological advances.

A new green revolution is required to secure sufficient food for our growing global population in a sustainable balance between environmental impacts and resource exploitation. However, besides increasing grain and biomass yields, a major challenge will be to improve the content of useful chemical constituents in plants and trees.

The challenges can only be met by world-class plant science aimed at understanding the molecular processes governing plant growth and development, plant responses to environmental challenges and plant interactions with each other and with other organisms. This provides the platform for harnessing the full potential of plants to help combat some of the major challenges humanity is facing. To do this, we will need knowledge about plant genomes, transcriptomes, proteomes, glycomes, metalomes and metabolomes, function and evolution of regulatory pathways and interactions with other plants and organisms.

Research at Copenhagen Plant Science Centre (CPSC) will be cross-disciplinary bridging biochemistry, molecular biology, bioinformatics and biophysics. Using synthetic biology approaches, CPSC will exploit the naturally high diversity of plant systems by taking components, whole pathways or regulatory elements from their natural contexts and reassemble them into new, functional modules that perform specific tasks geared towards our goals.

In particular, it will be vital to understand the special plasticity of plants. This plasticity has evolved because, unlike animals, plants are sessile and must exploit the available resources where they are growing. Most plants are thus adapted to change not just their size, shape, and orientation to the sun, but also to make a multitude of subtle biochemical and molecular adjustments.

Understanding the evolutionary and developmental biology and the molecular interactions that underpin this capacity for fine-tuning is challenging, but its exploitation can direct plant production towards our own goals. Specifically, CPSC aims to advance our fundamental knowledge of plants' plasticity and versatility to obtain crop plants that a) produce more healthy foods with less input of resources and b) facilitate the development of plants as efficient green factories and as sources of renewable bio-energy.

Increased knowledge of the interactions among plant genes, growth, development and evolution as well as their resource use efficiency and population and ecosystem behaviour opens up new vistas for the design of more sustainable and efficient plant production systems.