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Home » Smart crops for a changing world: novel insights from the Italian plant science community

Smart crops for a changing world: novel insights from the Italian plant science community

After the summer break, the Italian Society of Agricultural Genetics celebrated the 66th edition of its annual congress in sunny Bari, a beautiful city located in the heel of Italy’s boot. Want to know more about “Climate-smart plants to feed the future”? Don’t miss this post-conference blog post.

The maritime city of Bari has served as trading hub between West and East for centuries. Still today, the bustling capital of the Apulian region continues building bridges among cultures as its vibrant university community has established cooperation agreements with distinguished Universities worldwide and global partnerships in a wide range of research topics, including Agricultural Sciences. This year, the University of Bari hosted “Climate-smart plants to feed the future”, the annual congress of Societá Italiana di Genetica Agraria (SIGA) that brought together crop scientists working in Italian research centres and top experts from international institutions.

Basic ingredients of the Mediterranean diet at risk

Besides its historic heritage, Puglia is also famous for its incredible gastronomic tradition, being a major producer of essential ingredients of the Mediterranean diet like cereals, tomatoes, grape, and olive. Nevertheless, new pests (e.g., Xylella fastidiosa), together with increasing impact of heat waves and drought episodes, are threatening the incredible variety of plant products (Figure 1). Thus, the sunny heel of Italy’s boot looks the perfect location to talk about present and future challenges of agricultural biodiversity.

Figure 1. Typical food of the Apulian region. Left, fresh vegetables sold in a street market in Bari vecchia. Right, orecchiette pasta in the doorways; women traditionally prepare this home-made special type of pasta by hand. Pictures by MO.

SIGA Congress highlights: towards climate smart plants

At the beginning of September, more than 300 plant scientists from Italian institutions – together with international speakers from prestigious research centres – participated in a 4-day event to present their ongoing research on crop science. Participants also discuss applications of novel findings for a more sustainable agriculture.

After institutional greetings, the scientific sessions spanned a wide range of OMICS and multi-OMICS approaches as well as cutting-edge technologies that can facilitate the obtainment of climate smart crops. Plant scientists are currently employing innovative methods to explore the use of Plant Genetic Resources in breeding programs aimed at boosting climate resilience as well as improving food quality. For example, genetic variation is being exploited to enhance plant adaptation to a changing climate or plant defence to pathogen attacks, not only in major cereals (e.g., wheat, barley, rice, maize) but also in vegetables (e.g., carrot, tomato, lettuce, eggplant).

Interestingly, several talks also highlighted the use of techniques originally developed in simple model species to analyse the complex genomes of fruit crops such as grape, apple and peach. Beside food, a session was also dedicated to projects aimed at achieving climate resilient ecosystems, with a particular focus on forest trees growing in Southern Europe (e.g., Pinus pinaster, Pinus nigra).

Choosing among more than 50 outstanding oral presentations is an impossible task, but it is worth introducing two talented young researchers – LISA ROTASPERTI and SESSEN DANIEL IOHANNESS – awarded with the “SIGA prize for best papers published in 2022”.

Congress spotlight: Lisa and “happy under the sun” barley

LISA ROTASPERTI did her PhD at the Department of Biosciences of the University of Milan, where she studied the photosynthetic performance of barley (Hordeum vulgare) – a major cereal used to prepare delicious food, caffeine-free drinks and beer (of course).

In the research article published in Environmental and Experimental Botany, Lisa and colleagues identified and characterized a “pale green” variety of barley, This mutant, named happy under the sun 1 (hus1) as it grows well even under high light intensities, has a lower content of chlorophylls compared to standard “full green” varieties. Nevertheless, hus1 shows increased photosynthetic efficiency and good agronomic performance (e.g., biomass accumulation, grain yield) in field trials.

Intriguingly, being “pale green” can be detrimental in the wild – where different plant species compete for sunlight and nutrients – but beneficial in cultivated fields – where individuals of the same species (or even the same genotype) grow at optimised density and conditions.

Lisa is currently working as a postdoctoral researcher in the same lab, where she investigates the use of pale green crops in complex agroecosystems (Figure 2).

Figure 2. Lisa and her work. Left, Lisa Rotasperti presenting her work at the SIGA congress. Right, barley field at maturity in Italy. Pictures by MO and Canva.

The adoption of cultivars with reduced photosynthetic pigments represents a promising strategy towards a more sustainable agriculture. Indeed, pale green cereals can be cultivated at higher density – thus boosting seed production without increasing the cultivated area – with reduced inputs of water, fertilizers, and pesticides.

Pale green crops also facilitate a deeper light penetration, meaning that sunlight can reach more easily leaves located at the base of the plant. Moreover, these varieties show increased albedo, resulting in higher reflection of incident solar radiation. Altogether, these features make pale green crops the perfect fit for AgroPhotoVoltaics applications using double-face solar panels.

Congress spotlight: Sessen and the breeding potential of Teff

SESSEN DANIEL IOHANNESS did her MSc thesis at the Centre of Plant Research of the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies in Pisa, where she worked on integrating genomics, climate, and agricultural and farmer traits data to uncover the breeding potential of Teff (Eragrostis tef).

Teff is a cereal native of the horn of Africa, commonly grown by smallholder farmers in a wide range of environments, from moist lowlands to subhumid highlands. Despite its importance as a staple crop, its breeding potential has been largely understudied and underutilized. Teff still holds some unfavourable features related to limited domestication efforts – such as lodging, seed shattering, and very small seed size- which make its large-scale cultivation difficult and limit harvesting.  Neglected or underutilized species such as teff –also known as orphan crops as they are generally “abandoned” by the scientific community hold untapped diversity for use in breeding and crop improvement programs.

Sessen and colleagues (Figure 3) carried out an exhaustive and participatory characterization of a diversity panel of Ethiopian teff (at genetic, phenotypic, and bioclimatic levels), reported in a research article published in eLife.

Figure 3. Sessen and her work. Left, professional profile of Sessen Daniel Iohanness. Right, field of Teff – a food crop producing the smallest cereal grain in the world – in Ethiopia. Pictures: courtesy of Sessen Daniel Iohanness.

The authors found that genetic diversity was mostly driven by environmental gradients, suggesting the presence of local adaptation. By using Genome-Wide Association Studies (GWAS), they also identified important loci that control agronomic performance, adaptation to climate, and farmers’ preferences, paving the way to new genetic improvement programs. Sessen explained that their interdisciplinary and participatory approach was key to success: the research team involved climate scientists, geneticists, crop scientists, and local farmers (15 women, 20 men) in the evaluation of the Ethiopian diversity panel.

Sessen is currently pursuing a Ph.D. at the prestigious Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where she works at the interface of evolutionary genetics and developmental biology to understand the mechanisms governing reproductive growth in maize. 


The barley mutant happy under the sun 1 (hus1): An additional contribution to pale green crops – ScienceDirect

A paler shade of green: engineering cellular chlorophyll content to enhance photosynthesis in crowded environments – Cutolo – 2023 – New Phytologist – Wiley Online Library

Data-driven, participatory characterization of farmer varieties discloses teff breeding potential under current and future climates | eLife (

Frontiers | Orphan Crops: A Best Fit for Dietary Enrichment and Diversification in Highly Deteriorated Marginal Environments (

Orphan Crops and their Wild Relatives in the Genomic Era – ScienceDirect

Cover: Bari. Image: Canva.

Michela Osnato

Plant Molecular Biologist passionate about Science Communication and Education.
Science Editor @ Botany One

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