Global Climate Change and Forests- Adaptation and Mitigation

forest ecosystemI have a long standing interest in forest ecosystems and climate change. This has been focused on the atmospheric environment and on temperate forests and also on the effects of drought on plant genetics, genomics, function and growth. For ten years, I was PI on one of only four large global forest ecosystem experiments to quantify the impacts of rising atmospheric CO 2 on forest ecosystems, and the only experiment outside the USA, where we elucidated many of the fundamental changes in the carbon balance and growth of a fast growing poplar forest, subjected to the conditions of 2050.  We used this forest ecosystem to identify novel delays in autumnal senescence in response to future CO 2 and have elucidated the mechanism responsible for these changes, receiving wide publicity of this research. I have been one of the European leaders in the network of Excellence EVOLTREE, where we have identified the likely impacts of climate change on trees as drivers of evolution within complex forest ecosystems. We have elucidated the evolutionary history of black poplar and adaptation to current rainfall regimes from southern to northern Europe, including identifying novel differences in carbon isotopic signature, genes for stomatal patterning and tree development, that differ between southern and northern black poplar tree populations subjected to different natural drought regimes. It seems likely that adaptation to drought has involved a suite of genetic changes that contrast to trees in northern Europe, adapted to plentiful rainfall and extreme responses to rare drought events. The consequences of our findings for breeding and conservation for European trees in future climates is a focus of future research.  In addition to this, for several years I have been developing work on Plantago populations at a high CO 2 springs in Italy, subjected to high atmospheric CO 2 for many generations where we are assessing the potential of CO 2 to act as a selective pressure for adaptation – identifying key genes for future change.

Bioenergy Trees- Transition to the Low Carbon Economy

bioenergy treesI have a wide expertise in the technology development and deployment of biomass for bioenergy including heat, power and liquid fuels, with particular emphasis on the use of trees as sources of sustainable feedstock supply. My research stretches from molecular through to ecosystem services and extends to policy development, but the underlying theme is always to enhance the deployment of sustainable bioenergy systems for a global future with less dependence on fossil fuels. At the molecular level, I hold one of the few F2 populations of trees suitable for QTL mapping and have used this extensively to identify areas of the poplar tree genome important for traits related to bioenergy. This includes our current research where we have identified QTL for glucose yield (for bioethanol) and through genetical genomics linked this to a set of target genes for enhance bioethanol production, that we are now investigating using RNAi approaches in both poplar and Arabidopsis. Over the past five years, as part of my leadership on the Executive group of the Network of Excellence, EVOLTREE (Trees as drivers of evolution and diversity), an international collaboration has developed black poplar as an outstanding resource for studying breeding and conservation goals, including those related to bioenergy. We have developed a wide Association Population with more than 1000 individuals, sourced from diverse climatic zones across Europe, have re-sequenced the genome of black poplar using Illumina technology using a panel of fifty genotypes. We have used this resource to identify 2 million black poplar SNPs and have designed a SNP chip for our wide use. This resource is one of the very first for a native European tree and will be of outstanding importance for the next few years, until our ambition to sequence 1000 poplar trees in fulfilled. For bioenergy, I am collaborating with USA NREL scientists to phenotype the wood from our association population, to provide genotype-phenotype associations and targets for future breeding in the bioenergy trees of global significance.

At the ecosystem level¸ current funded research by ETI and NERC is focused on understanding the carbon balance of bioenergy systems in the UK. Can bioenergy cropping systems have a better greenhouse gas balance than arable crops and grassland and how can they be managed to best effect? To answer these questions, the ELUM project alongside the Carbo-BioCrop consortium has developed a UK network of flux sites where in November 2011, we began measuring GHG balance, including at a willow bioenergy site in Sussex. Our previous model-based research, suggested than land transitions to bioenergy, other than tall forest and permanent grassland, give a net benefit for carbon balance, but experimental evidence is required to support this. The network of flux sites is world-leading and will provide over the next few years, information of an unprecedented impact.

At the Policy level, work on policy input for bioenergy has included contributions to the original BBSRC 2007 review of bioenergy, leading to the development of the BBSRC Bioenergy Research Centre, current contributions from our yield modeling activity to the UK EMSE Energy model, UK DECC Bioenergy Strategy and DECC Energy modeling, as well as input to UKERC activity in the area of bioenergy developments. Internationally, I am involved with USA-EU twinning activities on LCAs for bioenergy and their use in certification systems for sustainable bioenergy.  A recent grant on the global ecosystem service footprint of biofuel imports to the UK has kicked-off (funded by UKERC) and this will provide a novel framework comparing the global ecosystem services impacts of biofuels compared to oil-based transport fuel for the UK.

Food for Health and Sustainability- Baby Salad Leaves

baby salad leavesI am investigating the genetic basis of leaf quality and yield in lettuce and in molecular breeding for high productivity and improved anti carcinogenic properties in baby leaf crops including watercress…see more. This hinges on interdisciplinary collaboration with Medicine and Chemistry. We are using the latest high throughput genotyping tools, in particular, a single feature polymorphism genotyping chip with more than 20,000 features and RIL and association resources in collaboration with UC Davis. This work is developing molecular markers for breeding in lettuce in collaboration with Sainsbury’s Supermarket and more recently, working on sustainability issues with Marks and Spencer. We currently have a marker for phenolic content where IP is being protected. For watercress, a new project is supplying the Vitacress watercress for genome sequencing to BGI, which we will complement with our own re-sequencing on genotypes of interest to underpin molecular breeding in this crop. This research has been funded by industry since 1999, through several CASE collaborations and a BBSRC IPA award. We currently receive funds from Marks and Spencer, Sainsbury’s Supermarkets PLC, Shamrock Seeds, Vitacress Salads. This research area has the potential for much further expansion.