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Climate resilient crops: Novo Nordisk Foundation and the Wellcome Trust award a grant of up to DKK 585 million to the ‘Ancient Environmental Genomics Initiative for Sustainability’

Harnessing environmental DNA, a new pioneering research project sets out to transform future cropping systems and to develop resilient crops in the face of climate change. The Novo Nordisk Foundation has awarded a grant of up to DKK 585 million over seven years, co-funded with the Wellcome Trust, to the Ancient Environmental Genomics Initiative for Sustainability.

In an era where climate change poses a critical threat to biodiversity and agricultural productivity, the Novo Nordisk Foundation has awarded a grant of up to DKK 500 million over seven years, with an additional DKK 85 million funded by the Wellcome Trust, to the ambitious ‘Ancient Environmental Genomics Initiative for Sustainability’ (AEGIS) research programme.

AEGIS is led by the evolutionary geneticist Professor Eske Willerslev from the University of Copenhagen and University of Cambridge. The programme leverages environmental DNA (eDNA) to forge a new path in sustainable agriculture. The initiative aims to decode and understand how ecosystems and crops responded and adapted to past environmental perturbations and is driven by the aspiration to create a more sustainable future by enhancing crop resilience and agroecosystem sustainability.

“AEGIS will sequence vast amounts of ancient environmental DNA and make that data globally accessible. By combining the data with novel bioinformatic tools and AI, we can make a quantum leap in our understanding of how ecosystems and individual species function and how they have adapted to environmental challenges, similar to the ones we expect in the near future. This deep understanding of nature and the environment will enable the creation of resilient crops that can withstand and mitigate climate change” says Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, CEO, Novo Nordisk Foundation.

“Agricultural systems and the foods we grow have changed over millennia. We currently know very little about past ecosystems and what changes in biodiversity might have occurred as the environment changed. AEGIS hopes to build the evidence base needed to strengthen the resilience of food systems across the world in the face of future environmental changes,” elaborated John-Arne Røttingen, CEO, Wellcome Trust.

Reinventing agroecosystems
Global food security is at risk due to the combined effects of climate change and the biodiversity crisis. AEGIS addresses these pressing issues by exploring the past: how have ecosystems and species adapted to climatic changes, and how can this knowledge be applied to contemporary agricultural challenges?

As a part of the initiative, a global hub of environmental genomics expertise will be established at the University of Copenhagen. Central to this hub is the data engine, a core unit dedicated to extracting and analysing ancient eDNA from sediment cores, offering a window into the Earth’s agrarian history and the response of ecosystems to changes over hundreds to millions of years.

This groundbreaking work will harness the collective expertise in bioinformatics, microbial ecology, plant breeding, and environmental genomics to move scientific frontiers and develop new approaches to design stable and resilient agroecosystems. The ultimate goal is to provide a robust knowledge base and tools for the global community to advance agriculture in the face of climatic adversity.

The programme will feature collaborative efforts with leading research institutions and experts in a variety of relevant scientific fields and so-called PLUGin projects with the purpose of translating ancient genetic adaptations into strategies for contemporary agriculture and ecosystems.

“By employing ecosystem modelling, we can pinpoint which combinations of species lead to the most durable ecosystems in the past. This knowledge could serve as a blueprint for creating climate resilient food systems, enhancing both the crops we grow and the sustainability of the environments they grow in,” explains Professor Eske Willerslev.

AEGIS is committed to the principles of the Nagoya Protocol on Access and Benefit Sharing, which focusses on fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising by the utilisation of genetic resources, thereby contributing to the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.

The Novo Nordisk Foundation anticipates that AEGIS will significantly contribute to the understanding of agroecosystem functionalities from past environmental disturbances and will demonstrate proof-of-concept in key crops such as barley, wheat, and rice.

“AEGIS has the potential to break scientific barriers in a number of fields, while simultaneously providing tangible solutions to farmers worldwide,” says Mads Krogsgaard Thomsen, CEO, Novo Nordisk Foundation.

About the Novo Nordisk Foundation
Established in Denmark in 1924, the Novo Nordisk Foundation is an enterprise foundation with philanthropic objectives. The vision of the Foundation is to improve people’s health and the sustainability of society and the planet. The Foundation’s mission is to progress research and innovation in the prevention and treatment of cardiometabolic and infectious diseases as well as to advance knowledge and solutions to support a green transformation of society.

About Wellcome
Wellcome is a global charitable foundation, based in the UK. Wellcome supports science to solve the urgent health challenges facing everyone. We support discovery research into life, health, and wellbeing, and we’re taking on three worldwide health challenges: mental health, infectious disease, and climate and health.

Further information

Jakob Stein
Communications Specialist
[email protected]