New European project to develop innovative and sustainable strategies to create climate-resilient cereals

BOOSTER Newsletter 2023


In this newsletter, we delve into the dynamics of the BOOSTER project, offering you a comprehensive glimpse into its core elements. Discover what BOOSTER is about and its objectives, get to know our dedicated partners, and understand how we've organized our work. Learn about the expected impacts of our project and our plans for sharing results. Join us on this innovation journey!

Discover BOOSTER

BOOSTER aims to improve drought tolerance in both maize and teff, while simultaneously exploring the potential for transferring species-specific drought responsive features. By exploiting natural genetic variations to achieve drought-tolerant genotypes, and by developing biostimulants derived from living organisms, BOOSTER will harness the natural resources available to develop new varieties of drought-tolerant agricultural crops.
Firstly, a new approach will identify genomic variants in regulatory regions functionally associated with drought tolerance. Novel regulatory elements underlying resilience will inform efficient breeding efforts to create new drought-tolerant cereal varieties. Secondly, novel molecular priming technologies from seaweed and microbial-based biostimulants will be developed as an eco-friendly approach for improving drought resilience. The two strategies will be tested in two cereals with different degrees of responsiveness to drought: European maize and Ethiopian teff – a cereal with a high genetic similarity to the desiccation tolerant sister species Eragrostis nindensis. By using teff, a relatively drought tolerant species, and maize, a drought sensitive cereal model species, BOOSTER will identify the different mechanisms adopted by the two cereals to cope with drought. In addition, the comparison with teff will offer the unique opportunity to gain insights into the differences with desiccation tolerant cereals. The efforts to explore similarities and differences in genes and regulatory sequences involved in drought response in these species may open new avenues for the development of cereals that are simultaneously productive and resilient.
In the genetic approach, rather than only focusing on genes involved in drought responses, emphasis will be placed on the identification of the still largely unexplored function of the non-coding regulatory sequences that determine plant yield under drought. Microbial biostimulants will be developed by isolation and characterisation of those found in soils with a long history of drought, from both where crops have been traditionally grown and from where crop wild relatives thrive. They will be selected based on their ability to form symbiotic relationships that facilitate crop resilience under drought, without incurring yield penalty. Furthermore, extracts from brown algae, representing biostimulants proven to prime plant drought responses, will be also used as a source of sustainable and renewable raw material that are produced following circular bioeconomy requirements. The synergy between the genetic and biostimulant improvements fostered by BOOSTER will render our crops more climate resilient.

Meet the Partners

The BOOSTER consortium comprises a highly qualified team represented by European and international (USA, South Africa, Ethiopia) academics and industry to collectively ensure that the expected impacts are achieved in the near future.We are pleased to announce the signing of the European project “BOOSTER”, funded by the European Commission within the framework of the Horizon Europe programme.
Aphea.Bio is dedicated to food security and ensuring a safe and healthy food chain. The company will be involved in the drought screen testing of the candidate microorganisms in greenhouse and in field trials.
BioAtlantis is a biotechnology company specializing in the production and purification of natural bioactive compounds with the aim of providing solutions to specific problems in crops, animals and humans.BioAt lantis will provide novel ‘molecular priming’ biostimulant technologies, designed and specifically tailored to enhance drought tolerance in maize and teff prior to despatch to other partners for field trial evaluation.
CPSBB (Center of Plant Systems Biology and Biotechnology) is an independent research entity dedicated to conducting high-quality research in plant systems biology and biotechnology. The center will investigate the effect of Sea Weed Extracts provided by BioAtlantis on maize in control and drought-stressed conditions.

CREA (Consiglio per la Ricerca in agricoltura e l’analisi dell’Economia Agraria) is the leading Italian research organization dedicated to agri-food supply chains, which operates supervised by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food Sovereignty, and Forests (Masaf). CREA is the project coordinator and oversees the project management and quality.

EIAR (Ethiopian Institute of Agricultural Research) is a governmental research institute focused on enhancing the livelihoods of Ethiopians in agriculture, agro-pastoralism, and pastoralism through market-competitive agricultural technologies. EIAR is actively engaged in all work packages, focusing on teff research.

EU CORE (EUropean COoperation in Research and Education) is a consulting firm specializing in research and education cooperation, which supports organizations participating in EU-funded projects. EU CORE assists the Project Coordinator in project management, chairs the Ethics Advisory Group for genetically modified plants advice, and provides support in communication and dissemination activities.

UDUS (University of Düsseldorf), also known as Heinrich Heine University, coordinates the development of a maize and teff map associated with drought tolerance and is involved in comparative genomics of drought CREs and genes, along with the validation of drought CREs genome-wide data.

IDC (ID Consortium) is a Spanish consulting firm that assists researchers and businesses in internationalizing their R&D efforts by securing project funding and delivering innovative products and services. IDConsortium leads communication, dissemination, and exploitation efforts to enhance public understanding of biotechnology and the bioeconomy.

KWS is a large seed company with a sustainability ambition program targeting a 1.5% annual yield gain for farmers through advancements in plant breeding and digital farming. KWS will analyze a total of 50 maize F1 hybrids using the MoaSeq method, along with the validation of CRE genetic variants and nearby genes.

MSU (Michigan State University), the associated partner from the USA, will contribute crucial information on the teff genome sequencing program, access to USDA germplasm, and expertise, tools, and networks essential for comparative genomics.

Quantis is a leading Swiss consultancy specialized in sustainability and Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which supports organizations in measuring, understanding, managing, and communicating the sustainability performance of their products, services, and operations. Quantis will environmentally assess various genome-edited products, guiding the selection of relevant phenotypes for the development of more resilient and sustainable agri-food systems.

UBERN (University of Bern) is leading the development and characterization of new SWE and microbial biostimulants to enhance maize and teff drought tolerance. UBERN will also cultivate teff plants under different water regimes for the MoA experiment and study the physiological and morphological parameters of teff genotypes grown in diverse water regimes.

UCT (University of Cape Town) UCT will provide mother soil for Teff cultivation and drought tolerance testing, sequencing the endophytes from roots of Teff varieties that best survived drought conditions. Additionally, UCT will conduct dehydration and recovery experiments on Eragrostis nindensis for MOA/mRNA-seq analysis at CREA, and support communication, dissemination and exloitation in Africa.

VIB is an entrepreneurial non-profit research institute, closely partnered with five universities in Flanders: Ghent University, KU Leuven, University of Antwerp, VUB (Vrije Universiteit Brussel), and Hasselt University. VIB coordinates the comparative genomics of drought CREs and genes, as well as the validation of maize and teff drought CREs genome-wide data. Additionally, VIB is involved in the development and characterization of new SWE and microbial biostimulants, supports communication and dissemination efforts and contributes to the ethics committee.


Unveiling Our Mission & Strategies

BOOSTER will implement two overarching strategies. The first strategy utilizes a powerful method for genome-wide, high-resolution identification of natural genetic variation within cis-regulatory elements (CREs), regulating gene expression. This is followed by estimating their causative association with drought tolerance. The second strategy focuses on developing novel, eco-friendly, and bio-based natural biostimulants, including seaweed extracts (SWEs) known for priming abiotic stress tolerance, and microbial biostimulants, such as plant growth-promoting rhizobacteria (PGPR) found in and around plant roots.

The implementation of these synergistic strategies aims to enhance biomass resources, derived from maize and teff, during future extreme drought conditions caused by climate change in both Europe and Africa. The developed products are anticipated to exhibit high transferability, contributing to the enhancement of drought resilience in diverse crops and countries. This is poised to strengthen the competitiveness of bioeconomy-based industries in both Europe and Africa, while concurrently improving yield stability with reduced irrigation requirements. To attain these objectives, BOOSTER's efforts are organized into five distinct Work Packages (WPs), each dedicated to a specific task that contributes to the overarching goal of the project:

WP1. Genome-wide identification of maize and teff CREs and genes associated with drought tolerance. WP1 is dedicated to developing a maize and teff map associated with drought tolerance. Maize and teff, globally significant as staple food, animal feed, and biofuel sources, face productivity challenges due to climate change, particularly affecting high-yield modern varieties. To address the increasing demands of a growing population amid constant or shrinking arable land, improvements in yields under adverse conditions like prolonged drought, high heat, and salinity are crucial. This work package aims to identify cis-elements that regulate responses to abiotic climate change stresses, including drought and heat. Novel sequencing technologies such as MOA-seq and FIND-CIS will be employed to quantitatively analyze transcription factor binding and gene expression in different maize and teff varieties. Combined with phenotypic data, this information will be used to bioengineer climate change-resilient maize and teff plants.

WP2. Comparative genomics of drought CREs and genes in three different grasses and validation of maize and teff drought CREs genome-wide data. The objectives of WP2 are to identify drought and desiccation cis-regulatory elements (CREs) in E. nindensis, discern similarities and differences in drought and desiccation responses among maize, teff, and E. nindensis, validate AS MOA/mRNA-seq results in both maize and teff; and evaluate the potential for transferring specific drought tolerance features from E. nindensis and teff to maize.

WP3. Development and characterization of new SWE and microbial biostimulants for improving maize and teff drought tolerance. The objectives of WP3 are to identify and isolate root-colonizing microorganisms from areas in Africa and Europe with a long history of drought to formulate novel and efficient microbial biostimulants, identify the best-performing seaweed extracts (SWEs) and microbial biostimulants for improving drought tolerance in maize and teff, and study the mode of action of the most effective SWEs and microbial biostimulants. To achieve these objectives, a multidisciplinary team from eight institutions in seven countries is conducting various activities, including the collection of microbial samples from drought-prone sites in Africa and Europe, the study of microbial and SWE biostimulants for their role in drought tolerance of maize and teff, and the mode of action of biostimulants on the drought tolerance of key cereal crops.

WP4. Production of the best performing SWE and microbial biostimulants and evaluation of their performance in improving maize and teff drought tolerance through field trials. The objective of WP4, led by BioAtlantis, is to develop seaweed-based and microbial-based biostimulant technologies that enhance drought tolerance in maize and teff. The effectiveness of these technologies will be demonstrated in drought-prone areas of Ethiopia and Europe, including the Mediterranean zone (the Po plain, Italy; Southern France; Southern Spain) and the South/Eastern zone (Bulgaria, Hungary). Building on their progress in WP3, BioAtlantis and ApheaBio will deliver formulations designed with specific bioactive compounds proven to efficiently prime drought tolerance in crops. The formulations will be made available to EIAR, CPSBB, CREA, and APBIO for field trial evaluation.

WP5. Project DEC to improve public understanding of biotechnology and bioeconomy in the context of the EU strategies, and implementation of the stakeholders’ involvement to achieve project outcomes and impacts. The main objective of WP5 is the project Dissemination, Exploitation, and Communication (DEC): to effectively communicate and disseminate project activities and results to the broader public and a wide range of stakeholders using innovative tools, ensuring results exploitation after the project concludes. Additionally, this work package assesses the environmental performance of the developed solutions, compares them with existing strategies, supports knowledge transfer to farmers, growers, breeders, and seed companies, facilitates the effective exploitation of results (including handling IP issues), and promotes the transferability of results, techniques, and products to other crops in Europe and developing countries.

WP6. Project management and quality control. WP6 aims to establish an efficient management structure to monitor the overall project implementation, ensure early identification of problems and enable timely contingency measures. This WP monitors overall scientific quality, leading to the achievement of project objectives and to the formulation of high-quality deliverables and conclusions, ensuring adequate communication flow among partners and with the European Commission, and efficient management of ethics issues.


BOOSTER's Impact on the Future

BOOSTER addresses the global challenge of increasing drought incidence, particularly in Europe, which poses significant economic risks and necessitates urgent mitigation strategies.

The project focuses on enhancing maize drought tolerance by uncovering natural variation within cis-regulatory elements (CREs). These CREs, regulated by transcriptomic factors, influence numerous genes involved in drought responses. BOOSTER's approach aims to increase the likelihood of developing drought-tolerant genotypes (DTGs) through innovative breeding strategies. Additionally, the project introduces eco-friendly biostimulants to mitigate drought effects on maize, with the combined action of novel DTGs and biostimulants expected to synergistically reduce yield losses. By project conclusion, BOOSTER aims to transfer knowledge and technologies to diverse crops and countries, including maize cultivation in Africa.

The environmental benefits will be assessed through a comprehensive life cycle assessment (LCA), considering carbon emissions, water usage, and land use reductions. Dissemination, exploitation, and communication strategies involve engagement with industrial partners, networking with related projects, and forming a Stakeholder Network across the value chain. Thus, BOOSTER's outcomes aim to enhance the competitiveness of European and African bioeconomy industries, promoting sustainable technologies and improving public awareness through targeted dissemination efforts.


Upcoming activities

Get ready for a wave of activities as BOOSTER project partners embark on a series of impactful initiatives! In the upcoming months, we'll be diving into innovative research, and you can be a part of it. Stay tuned for exciting updates on our journey to a more resilient and sustainable future!

8th International workshop on dessication sensitivity
and tolerance across life form

Date: 15th-19th January 2024

Prof. Jill Farrant

Access to the event information

Past events

Drought sensing?
What do we know from crops to resurrection plants?

Date: 21st July 2023

Prof. Jill Farrant

Access to the event information

Towards developing climate resilient crops symposium

Date: 29th June 2023

Mr. John T O’ Sullivan
Prof. Hilde Nelissen
Prof. Robert VanBuren
Prof. Tsanko Gechev

Access to the event information

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