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Novo Nordisk Foundation awards DKK 120 million for research on crop resilience

The Foundation is providing DKK 120 million for research that will make crops more resilient to plant diseases and climate change. The grant recipients are Hans Thordal-Christensen, Professor and Michael Broberg Palmgren, Professor.

A growing population coupled with a need to reduce the impact of food production on the environment and climate presents several global challenges for agriculture.

The Novo Nordisk Foundation has awarded nearly DKK 120 million through its 2019 Challenge Programme for two research projects that focus on preparing crops for future challenges. One project will examine how to control fungal diseases in wheat and barley and the other will study how to accelerate the breeding of resilient plants.

“The two projects we have decided to support in this area combine knowledge of plant science and biotechnology with the aim of making crops more resilient to disease and extreme weather events such as floods and droughts. The research can help provide new knowledge and new methods that are essential for developing more stable, efficient and sustainable global food production,” says Claus Felby, Head of Life Science Research and Industrial Applications Promoting Sustainability, Novo Nordisk Foundation.

Resilient to disease and climate changes
The Foundation has awarded one grant to Hans Thordal-Christensen, Professor, Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of Copenhagen, who is receiving DKK 59,996,360 for the project A New Paradigm for Disease-free Crops of Tomorrow.

Hans Thordal-Christensen and his collaborators will work towards creating durable resistance to the fungal diseases powdery mildew and yellow rust in wheat and barley. Only one fungal spore is needed to infect a healthy plant. Once a plant in a field is infected, it spreads quickly, and in just a few months the whole field is affected.

“Wheat and barley are large and important crops globally. If we find a way to achieve resilience, we can minimize the crop losses caused by the fungal diseases. As production becomes more efficient, it can be concentrated on fewer hectares and we can then conserve biodiversity and store CO2 on other land,” explains Hans Thordal-Christensen.

The Foundation also awarded the second grant to a professor at the Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of Copenhagen: Michael Broberg Palmgren. He is receiving DKK 59,948,972 for the project NovoCrops: Accelerated Domestication of Resilient Climate Change Friendly Plant Species. The researchers will test methods for accelerated breeding on a variety of wild plants to create crops that are resilient to factors such as climate change.

These wild plants are the ancestors of our modern crops. Although yields are small, they are more robust to diseases and extreme weather such as drought or flooding. Based on the wild varieties, Michael Broberg Palmgren and his colleagues will create crops that combine the robustness of the wild plants with the good yield from the refined plants. Using new breeding techniques, the researchers will use six wild or semi-cultivated plant species for targeted breeding and thus accelerate a breeding process that can take several thousands of years in the wild based on random variation.

“Nine plant species provide almost all the world’s food intake, and all are refined. By comparison, there are about 380,000 wild plant species. Nature therefore offers us huge genetic variation that we do not exploit today. Instead of examining how to make the refined plants more robust, we will instead study how to harness the hardiness of wild plants as a starting-point to make crops that are resilient to diseases and extreme weather events,” says Michael Broberg Palmgren.

DKK 300 million allocated across three themes
The Foundation has awarded DKK 300 million for research through the 2019 Challenge Programme. In addition to the two grants in Modern Plant Science – Towards a Sustainable World, the Foundation has awarded DKK 120 million for research in Emerging Infectious Diseases and DKK 60 million for research in How Dietary Factors Affect the Human Microbiome.

Every year, the Foundation’s Challenge Programme awards more than DKK 100 million for research projects on specific challenges within annually selected research themes. The Foundation has just opened for applications for the 2020 Challenge Programme, with up to DKK 480 million being awarded allocated across the four research themes. Read more about the themes and the application process here.

Further information

Hans Thordal-Christensen, Professor, Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of Copenhagen, phone: +45 3533 3443, [email protected]

Michael Broberg Palmgren, Professor, Department of Plant and Environmental Sciences, University of Copenhagen, phone: +45 3533 2592, [email protected]

Christian Mostrup Scheel, Senior Press Officer, phone: +45 3067 4805, [email protected]