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Crop Improvement for sustainable production in a changing environment


In Scotland, climate change is expected to increase both the average temperature and the variability in precipitation patterns. These changes will increase the frequency of both drought and waterlogging events, with disproportionate effects on susceptible crops. Changes in soil water availability will impact and interact with nutrient availabilities; reductions in nutrient inputs to minimise agricultural greenhouse gas emissions will require crops that can cope with the reduced availability of key nutrients. In addition, the changes in cloud cover bought about by changing weather patterns will impact light quality which will have a profound effect on crop quality, particularly berries. Many of these stresses have been studied in isolation, but rarely have they been considered in an integrated way.

Increasing temperatures in Scotland are likely to alleviate the limiting impact of minimum temperature for growth for many crops and when combined with elevated carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, may create an opportunity to enhance the sustainability of production. However, this will only be possible if genotypes and cropping systems can cope with the allied abiotic stresses and nutrient limitations. While agricultural intensification has successfully delivered food and fuel, it has simplified agricultural landscapes, reducing biodiversity, depleting natural resources, and threatening ecosystem services. This loss of diversity might also reduce resilience to abiotic stress, creating uncertainty about the effects of changing climate on agricultural production and environmental degradation.

There are still major gaps in our knowledge about how crops respond to environmental stress scenarios. Perennial fruit crops are grown in significant quantities in Scotland and beyond and have strategic importance because of their high value, health-related attributes, and their potential environmental benefits from being long-lived crops. It is becoming increasingly difficult for growers to schedule varieties for optimum harvest with predictable yield. We need to understand the genetic, epigenetic, and environmental drivers controlling key developmental traits that impact yield.



  • What tools and technologies can underpin the genetic improvement of crops relevant to Scotland, including disease resistance and underpinning future farming and land use systems?
  • What are the key interactions for soil formation, nutrition availability and water cycling, which impact water supply, flood risk management, food production, waste management and climate regulation?


This project consists of two interrelated parts that address resource use and environmental resilience.


Resource use

We focus on producing four case studies and performing experiments that look at the impacts of prevalent and combined abiotic stress on the response of key and emerging crops and the effects on resource capture. We focus on

  • Light capture in blueberries
  • Combined nutrient and water use in potatoes
  • Resource use in legume intercropping
  • Optimisation of cover crops to Scottish conditions

The first two case studies assess genotypic variation and genetic control of traits in populations of prevalent crops in Scottish agricultural systems. We are using these to understand these crops’ ability to utilise resources under stress conditions. The latter two case studies assess the impact of both genotype selection and diversification of the cropping system to combat abiotic stress and optimise resource capture with environmental change. We also link phenotype and genotype in the selection of the appropriate plants to deliver improved biodiversity, sustainability, and resilient crop systems for future climates.


Environmental resilience

We support efforts for new targets for breeding climate-resilient potatoes. Our prior work identified a novel genetic component that strongly influences both the timing of tuber initiation and tuber sprouting post-harvest. We are testing the effects of variation in tuberisation timing using controlled environment facilities and in vitro tuberisation models. Cell biology and confocal imaging approaches are deployed to determine gene function and link tuberisation signalling to developmental processes under different environmental conditions. We focus on the following:

  • Phenotyping under complex stresses in soft fruit species
  • Dormancy induction and release in raspberry and other fruit crops
  • Genetic analysis of tuber yield under stress combinations
  • Tuberisation signalling pathways and responses to abiotic stresses

Project Partners

James Hutton Institute


2022 / 2023
2022 / 2023

The aim of this programme of work is to understand combined stress responses in key Scottish crops by identifying the key genes and regulatory networks that alleviate negative impacts and assessing the role that diversification of the cropping system, by for example the introduction of intercrops and cover crops, can have on resource use and stress tolerance. Diversifying cropping systems can be viewed as an alternative to breeding resilient varieties. We have engaged with industry stakeholders to ascertain what they perceive the key stresses are associated with climate change and identified useful traits and breeding targets to allow farmers to better cope with future stress. The project therefore focusses on two work packages (WPs); the first package investigates resource capture or use while the second investigates stress tolerance (i.e., environmental resilience).

To meet the objectives for each WP we have performed controlled environment experiments to quantify root traits, physiological performance and transcriptional responses to water availability in potato, tested model predictions for dormancy in raspberry and the impact of stress combinations on tuberization in potato, where we have found useful genotypic variation. In addition, a number of field experiments have investigated blueberry responses to environmental conditions and acclimation to light, while also developing in-field phenotyping tools and assessing impacts of climate on dormancy and bud break in raspberry. These experiments allow us to identify the response of crops (soft fruit and potatoes) to environmental stress including low light, water and heat. 

We have also developed several methods and resources to allow continued progress in proceeding years. The utility of methodologies for quantifying soil water and nutrient availability in intercropping systems have been assessed. While the sequence analysis of potato bulk segregant populations is complete. A literature review on the impacts of climate change on cover crops is in progress and will allow development of Year 2 hypotheses. Stakeholder events identifying industry issues and opinions on stress and resource use in potatoes and soft fruit were delivered. We have made strong progress towards understanding (i) physiological response of all crops to resource availability, (ii) genetic and transcriptional response of crops to resources and stress and (iii) determination of the impact of tuberisation signalling in varied environments. Progress has also been made to facilitate future research on (i) inclusion of legumes on resource use under stress and (ii) adaptation of cover crops to abiotic stress. Our work on system divesification has gained impact with a range of stakeholders through sessions at the World Biodiversity Forum, Arable Scotland and through TV media interviews. A change in the Year 2 budget has narrowed the stakeholder communication focus, i.e., as there will be a reduction in the number of transcriptional datasets produced and phenotyping and genotyping data will be performed on fewer genotypes. However, these reductions are not anticipated to impact downstream progress.

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