The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research (SSF) funds 200 MSEK to four research centers that will focus on finding solutions to four of the UN Agenda 2030 goals. SciLifeLab Fellows Paul Hudson (KTH) and Alexey Amunts (Stockholm University) have been selected, together with project-leader Åsa Strand and Alizee Malnoe (Umeå University), to set up one of the four centers.
The six-year-long program is part of a large-scale initiative from the SSF, aligned with the UN Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. The labs of Hudson and Amunts will become part of the new SSF Research Center for Future Advanced Technology for Sustainability, which will receive 50 million SEK in total.
“The Swedish Foundation for Strategic Research wants to contribute to meeting the UN’s sustainability goals. Therefore, we are looking for solutions to some of the most pressing problems regarding climate change, energy and food supply, and disease control”, says CEO Lars Hultman, in a press release from Stockholm University.
There are several research consortia around the world working to improve crop productivity and robustness. The new Swedish center will complement these with an additional research angle and by applying a novel combination of techniques that are, in Sweden, only present together at SciLifeLab. These include systems proteomics, cryo-EM, and high-throughput screening of genetic libraries.
“The SSF selected our proposal partly on the strength of SciLifeLab’s infrastructure and research environment, so it is an opportunity for us to wield SciLifeLab in a new arena”, says SciLifeLab Fellow Paul Hudson.
The center, that is composed of several different partners, will have a scientific advisory board that includes world-leading plant scientists that are engaged in other large initiatives to improve plant productivity.
“The center partners have diverse backgrounds, from biophysics, chemical engineering, and plant biochemistry. This diversity is a strength but will also require frequent feedback from an external scientific advisory committee”, says Paul Hudson.
Working within the field of Plant Biotechnology, the new center will pursue molecular engineering of chloroplasts to enhance both light utilization and metabolic efficiency. An overall goal is to enhance crop productivity via genetic engineering of the chloroplast.
But there is nothing simple about this process and the center will in fact push the limits for what is scientifically possible today. The researchers will make use of advanced systems biology and gene editing methodology that has only recently, or in some cases never, been applied to plants.
The most tangible output of the project will be GMO plants that grow faster. The center has an industrial partner, SweTree in Umeå, who will test the proposed engineering strategies in these crop plants.
“We will explore the metabolism of the chloroplast, the “engine” of the plant cell, and execute modifications of their light-harvesting proteins and key carbon metabolism enzymes. While the center will first focus on the model plant Arabidopsis, we expect findings to be applicable to other C3 crops, such as wheat or soybeans”, says Paul Hudson.
C3 plants are in comparison to C4 plants such as maize, sugarcane, and sorghum less efficient at utilizing carbon dioxide in photorespiration. As a consequence, C4 plants tend to be more productive in high light and temperature environments.
“Our contributions to the research program will be cryo-EM analysis of chloroplast proteins, performed at Alexey Amunt’s lab, and metabolomics and proteomics studies of chloroplasts, performed at Paul Hudson’s lab, to guide the genetic engineering efforts”, says Paul Hudson.
The four centers were selected by the SSF based on the quality of the proposed scientific work, and how each fits a global challenge. Each center will receive 50 MSEK as financial support, and their work is expected to contribute to the development of Sweden´s long-term competitiveness.
“The new center is anchored in the advanced units at SciLifeLab, and therefore it is our commitment to continue developing collaborative science at SciLifeLab’s Campus Solna node in the upcoming six years”, says Alexey Amunts.