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Eske Willerslev recieves Semper Ardens grant for research into ancient rice genes

The Carlsberg Foundation awards DKK 19m to Professor Eske Willerslev from the GeoGenetics Group at Cambridge University and the Centre for GeoGenetics at the University of Copenhagen for the Semper Ardens project “Uncovering the genetics of rice resilience to environmental stressors: An ancient genomics approach.” The project, which is carried out in cooperation with, i.a., Carlsberg Research Laboratory, will map the genome of past rice with the intention of identifying genes that can be used to make the rice of today stronger and more resilient.

The new research project is based on the discovery that Eske Willerslev did during his PhD study, namely that DNA from plants and animals can be extracted directly from old sediments.

Rice is the world’s second-most important crop; yet every year, vast amounts of the harvest are lost due to disease and extreme weather. By identifying useful genes that can heighten the resilience to these circumstances in the current rice, it will be possible to make a focused effort to nurture these genes during the plant breeding process, hereby increasing the harvest, securing food supply, and fighting against hunger and famine.

This is the reason that Eske Willerslev and his research colleagues at the Centre for Geogenetics receive a Semper Ardens-grant for research into rice genes. The project, which will primarily be conducted at Cambridge University, the Natural History Museum of Denmark at University of Copenhagen, and Carlsberg Research Laboratory, serves the purpose of mapping the genome of past rice with the intention of finding genes that can make current rice stronger and more resilient. Through a new method, developed at the Centre for Geogenetics (metagenomics environmental DNA) the researchers can extract full genomes from i.a. plants and their pathogens from sediments found on the bottom of lakes.

“By mapping the genome of cultivated rice through the last 10,000 years, it will be possible to find the genetic varieties, which have been important to the survival and reproduction of rice during extreme climate changes and epidemics but have gone lost in the breeding of today’s strains. These genetic varieties, then, can be introduced into current rice strains to make them more resistant to changes in the environment. Potentially, it could fight hunger and increase food security all over the world,” says director for Centre for Geogenetics, Eske Willerslev.

Regarding the grant, chairman of the Carlsberg Foundation, professor Flemming Besenbacher, says:

“Eske Willerslev and the researchers at the Centre for Geogenetics have developed a powerful method, which in great detail will tell us how the rice types of the past survived disease outbreaks or climatic changes through natural selection. The perspectives are far-reaching and will be able to help solve major global challenges. Therefore, the project is exactly of the type that the Carlsberg Foundation wants to support with a Semper Arden grant, which is given to excellent researchers with a special passionate and burning approach to their research”.

Sediment cores from 15 lakes

There are great technical challenges to mapping the genome of past rice. Partly, these old rice grains are relatively rare and often burnt, but the quality of the DNA is not good, either. Therefore, the research project will arise from the discovery that Eske Willerslev made during his PhD-project, which was, that DNA from plants and animals can be extracted directly from old sediments (environmental DNA or eDNA).

In addition to eDNA, the study will isolate and sequence rice genomes from individual pollen grains. Dr. Ana Prohaska, from the Department of Zoology, who is developing this novel method with Professor Willerslev, says:

“We will collect sediment cores from lakes in China, close to the areas where rice cultivation started approximately 10,000 years ago and extract the DNA of ancient rice from pollen grains preserved in these sediments. We will combine these two aDNA sources to look for genetic variants, which have previously granted rice a resilience to pathogens and climatic extremes, e.g., long spells of drought. Following this, the most promising variants will be introduced into modern rice varieties. We will do this by incorporating the genetic variants directly into rice genome and, afterwards, growing the modified rice plants in different controlled environments to identify the most well qualified types.”

It is of the essence to the Carlsberg Research Laboratory to produce high-quality raw materials.

“One of the Carlsberg Research Laboratory’s key priorities is to, along with cultivators around the world, identify new genetic varieties that can withstand extreme weather and climate changes. This project aims at identifying old genetic rice varieties with a natural robustness and resistance against certain diseases. In this, the Carlsberg Research Laboratory contributes expertise in testing and traditional cultivation in order to identify such genetic varieties in modern rice and thereby improving the rice plants of the future,” says Vice President of the Carlsberg Research Laboratory, Birgitte Skadhauge.

The project “Uncovering the genetics of rice resilience to environmental stressors: An ancient genomics approach” will primarily be carried out at Cambridge University, the Natural History Museum at the University of Copenhagen, and the Carlsberg Lab. There will be participants from England, USA, and China.

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