What is the main objective of the NatGenCrop project?

Dr. Veselin Petrov: 
The NatGenCrop project has two major goals, one is socio-economic while the other one is scientific. It is one of the first three Bulgarian projects funded by the ERA Chairs program, which aims at supporting universities and research organizations to increase their capacity by attracting high-profile scientists (ERA Chair holders) who can establish a new team. Under the guidance and leadership of these ERA Chair holders, the respective organizations conduct ambitious research projects striving to accomplish high achievements. In this aspect, a well-known specialist in plant metabolomics from the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Plant Physiology , Dr. Saleh Alseekh, was employed by CPSBB, where he headed a new department – “Crop Quantitative Genetics”. His novel group consists of young and ambitious researchers who will increase the scientific productivity of CPSBB in this area, which is of both fundamental and great practical importance.

From a research perspective, the NatGenCrop team will rely mainly on the study of the natural genetic variation of hundreds of lines of vegetables (tomato and pepper) with diverse characteristics. The ultimate goal is to improve their nutritional properties and resilience to stress by applying several complementary scientific approaches. This makes the project truly large-scale – both in terms of scope and potential for agricultural development.

What will the scientists explore within the project and what is their expertise?

The scientists who work on this project are highly experienced in various fields of biology – systems biology, molecular biology, bioinformatics, agronomy, biochemistry and plant physiology. This will allow a multidisciplinary approach in the research.

On one hand, new genes associated with characteristics of importance for agriculture and human health like higher yield, accumulation of beneficial compounds, improved organoleptic properties, increased tolerance to various types of stress, etc.,will be identified, studied and functionally validated. 

In addition, comprehensive metabolic profiling of the chemical composition of the fruits will be performed, with a focus on compounds relevant to palatability and nutritional health. This will be done parallelly under normal growing conditions and under stress in order to determine the effect of stressors on fruit quality. 

What is the importance of the project for CPSBB?

The project is of exceptional importance not only for CPSBB, but also for the development of Bulgarian science and education in the field of plant systems biology. It provided us the opportunity to establish an international team of scientists with high expertise who conduct large-scale fundamental and applied research.This project will further expand the portfolio of research activities of CPSBB and will significantly enrich the professional skills of our experts. Moreover, novel opportunities for collaboration with organizations in the country and abroad will be created. 

Another important contribution is that PhD students in plant systems biology and biotechnology will also be recruited and educated within the project. They will have the opportunity to initiate and progress through their scientific career in an extremely dynamic and competitive environment, while being trained with top-notch technologies and guided by proficient researchers.

What has been done so far within the project and what is planned for the upcoming year?

This was the initial year of the project which will last until 2028. The first and most important task was the establishment of the new Department “Crop Quantitative Genetics” at CPSBB. Except for Dr. Saleh Alseekh, six more people were employed in this department – an agronomist, a laboratory manager/technician, three postdoctoral fellows, including two molecular biologists and one bioinformatician, and one student.

The team began a large-scale experiment aiming to characterize a large set of tomato and pepper lines which were cultivated both in field and under greenhouse conditions and were treated parallelly with normal irrigation and water deficit. Hundreds of samples were taken for further molecular studies that will continue during the whole next year. The main experiment will also be repeated.

Dr. Veselin Petrov is a PhD in molecular biology, head of Department Funding at CPSBB and an assistant professor at the Agricultural University in Plovdiv, where he teaches Biochemistry. His research is in the field of plant physiology and molecular biology, with his main interests related to the effects of abiotic stress on plant growth and development, as well as the mechanisms through which plants acquire tolerance. At CPSBB his main tasks are to participate in the preparation of novel project proposals, manage the running projects, establish partnerships with representatives of academia and industry, etc.

We are proud that NatGenCrop is among the first Bulgarian scientific projects approved for funding under the ERA Chairs program of the European CommissionDr. Veselin PetrovHead of Department “Funding” at CPSBB