A major challenge in the twenty-first century is to increase global food production to feed a continuously growing population while the quality and quantity of arable land is diminishing. Central to this problem is the necessity to increase the yield of numerous important crop species and to find ways to extend geographical locations suitable for agriculture. Cold stress is an environmental extreme that hampers crop yield. Low temperatures restrict plant growth and development, while frost causes tissue damage. Yield losses are even more severe when cold stress occurs during the reproductive stage. Breeding programs for new tolerant varieties are diverse and usually tailored to the specific needs of a particular crop. The plant’s response to cold stress, however, is complex, involving many physiological, structural, and biochemical changes, which interact with other environmental factors and metabolic processes. BoostCrop represents a novel approach to improve crop yields by protecting plants from cold stress and stimulating their growth under a range of growing conditions. The invention is based on ‘molecular heaters’; nature-inspired molecules that absorb light at wavelengths that are either harmful to the plant or not used in photosynthesis, and converting this light energy to heat.
Radical vision of a science-enabled technology
BoostCrop’s long-term vision is to develop a suite of molecules for localised heat generation for Food Security. The entirely novel and ambitious research programme of BoostCrop, which surpasses substantially any technological paradigms currently in existence, employs a bottom-up approach to engineer photon-to-molecule heaters to optimise the absorption of selected components of the solar spectrum. In so doing, the ‘holy grail’ of BoostCrop is to use these revolutionary photon-to-molecule heaters in a foliar spray to enhance crop growth at low temperature and high UV-A/B exposure, enhance crop yield at high crop density (conditions which result in a reduced ratio of red to far red wavelengths; low R:FR), and concomitantly reduce greenhouse energy costs. To achieve this vision, BoostCrop brings together a team of scientists with expertise in broad areas of the physical and biosciences. The radically-new science-enabled technology that the project will engender involves: (1) Guiding the flow of photon energy in molecules; and (2) Utilising this energy to combat continual European and Global challenges, first and foremost, in sustainable Food production, as well as improvements in both Healthcare and clean Energy production. The combined efforts of the BoostCrop Team, which combines the expertise of 6 participant universities with 13 university based lead investigators, one government institute with one section leader, one SME with two group leaders and encompasses the 3 major disciplines of Chemistry, Physics, Biology.
Scientific and technical objectives (PS/TO)
- PS/TO1: Demonstration of guiding energy flow (UV-A/B and R/FR) at the molecular level
- PS/TO2: Transitioning photon-to-molecule localised heating to the macroscopic level
- PS/TO3: Development of a suite of molecules for localised heat generation
BoostCrop’s further objectives are arranged into 6 work packages (WP)
WP1: Synthesis and constitution of libraries of molecules: To develop high throughput strategies for synthesising, expressing and extracting a nature-inspired library of molecules and their analogues with functional moieties strategically positioned within the given molecule. We will (1) assess their UV-A/B and R/FR absorption characteristics to establish their efficiency for solar light harvesting, (2) determine structure-activity relationships to identify key chemical features, (3) identify their photodegradation products through NMR and high-resolution mass spectrometry, and (4) explore their adherence to different surfaces such as cellulose.
Led by Florent Allais and work at
WP2: Tracking energy flow following photoexcitation of target molecules in the gas- and solution-phase and on thin-films: To establish the intrinsic properties of our nature-inspired analogues using: (1) frequency-resolved measurements to explore the topographies of excited state potential energy surfaces (PESs) and decay pathways; (2) ultrafast (1D) pump-probe measurements to gain insight into excited state dynamics, bond breaking and formation mechanisms, and other energy dissipation pathways; and (3) ultrafast (2D) spectroscopies to correlate the excited state absorption and emission properties of candidate species.
Led by Wybren-Jan Buma and work at
WP3: Molecular dynamics and electronic structure simulations of photoexcited target molecules in the gas-phase and complex environments: To develop models for nonadiabatic excited state dynamics of target molecules in isolation and in complex environments. Comparison of computer simulations with experimental data will establish structure-dynamics-function relationships, and thus a molecular rationale for photon-to-molecule heaters. Such knowledge will also enable tuning the absorption profiles to be compatible with leaf photosynthetic machinery.
Led by Mario Barbatti and work at
WP4: Thermal imaging, by-product and toxicity analysis of target molecules: To test candidate analogues identified as exhibiting efficient ground state recovery following UV-A/B and R/FR absorption (i.e. efficient photon-to-molecule heater-behaviour) under as close to realistic plant growth scenarios as possible. Candidate molecules that deliver the most promising localised heat generation as well as possible photochemical or metabolic by-products will be analysed for their (in vitro) toxicity to both plants (including plant pathogens) and humans.
Led by Jos Oomens and work at
WP5: Real world applications: from laboratory to greenhouse: To transition the fundamental, bottom-up approaches of WP1-4 to real world problems. The growth, development, photosynthetic productivity and fitness of multiple plant species will be tested following the target molecules’ application in a variety of growth regimes. These will include low temperature, high UV-B (to simulate high altitude) and FR supplementation (to simulate canopy shade). The outcome of these experiments will have direct repercussions on reducing greenhouse energy costs. The possibility that target molecules’ application may adversely affect plant performance through initiating heat/drought stress responses will additionally be investigated at a range of temperatures.
WP6: Beyond the laboratory: upscaling with an SME: To validate the efficacy for foliar spray and irrigation treatments of the selected candidates with environmentally friendly water-based formulations.