Crag News

ERC ‘Starting Grant’ awarded to increase plants’ yield in drought conditions

Ivan Reyna-Llorens, principal investigator of the Synthetic biology and photosynthesis laboratory at CRAG, has been awarded a Starting Grant from the European Research Council (ERC), with his project METACAM - Metabolic flexibility in drought: Leveraging Portulaca for defining design principles for a combined C4-CAM pathway, to engineer plants resilient to high temperatures and drought conditions.

ERC has announced today the awarding of 400 Starting Grants to young scientists and scholars across Europe. The grants - totalling €628 million - support cutting-edge research in a wide range of fields, from medicine and physics to social sciences and humanities. These prestigious European grants are very competitive, with an overall success rate of 14.8%, and they help researchers at the beginning of their careers to launch their own projects, form their teams and pursue their best ideas. Ivan Reyna-Llorens is one of the 23 researchers awarded in Spain with this grant, and his proposal is one of the 110 selected throughout Europe, among the 735 proposals submitted in the Life Sciences area.

The METACAM project will study the mechanisms that plants use during water scarcity conditions to be able to generate crops that are more resilient to high temperatures and drought. Rising heatwaves and drought severely affect the capacity of crops to retain water and capture CO2 during photosynthesis, which results in global yield reductions. Some plants have specific metabolic pathways to cope with such stresses, for example the so-called Crassulacean Acid Metabolism (CAM) pathway, and CAM species are capable of thriving in water deprived environments. In fact, CAM species species like cacti or some epiphytes (plants that grow on the surface of other plants), dominate many of the most water limited environments on Earth as their water use efficiency can be 6-fold higher. However, the CAM system is not as efficient in the CO2 fixation process as other systems, like for example the C4 pathway. The METACAM project aims to engineer a combined C4-CAM system that activates the drought stress capabilities of CAM when stressed while relying on the high CO2 fixing capacity of C4 in optimal conditions. By combining anatomical studies, cell specific metabolomics and genomics with synthetic biology, CRAG researchers will identify the basic molecular components underlying these processes to engineer this mixed C4-CAM “switch” and provide an increased resilience to water scarcity conditions.
Improving the capacity of plants to face the negative consequences of rising temperatures and drought conditions on photosynthesis is fundamental to improve global crop yields in the context of climate crisis.

Project details:

Topic: ERC-2023-STG 
Proposal number: 101116147 
Proposal acronym: METACAM 
Proposal title: Metabolic flexibility in drought: Leveraging Portulaca for defining design principles for a combined C4-CAM pathway