What is the scientific activity you are responsible for within the NatGenCrop project?

Dr. Alicja Wieteska-Georgieva, Agronomist: 
– My main responsibility is to take care of the proper cultivation of plant crops for research at CPSBB. Regarding the NatGenCrop project, I am responsible for the entire cultivation process – seedling production, plant protection, proper treatment and application of drought stress, seed production, as well as phenotypic analysis and collection of leaf and fruit samples for later laboratory research and analysis.

Dr. Emil Vatov, Molecular Biologist:
– I assist in the statistical data analysis and the preparation of the experimental designs within the project, as precise randomization and replications are needed in order to obtain optimal statistical information. I also participate in the entire process of plant growing both in the greenhouses of CPSBB and in the experimental field on the territory of the MVCRI (“Maritsa Vegetable Crops Research Institute”) in Plovdiv, which is a long-term partner of CPSBB.

How many vegetable varieties are included in the project?

Dr. Alicja Wieteska-Georgieva: 
– The project explores two of the most popular plant crops for our latitudes. During the past year we grew over 500 lines – tomato crops from 21 countries worldwide, and pepper lines from six Balkan countries. We believe that the research results of this project will have the potential to be applied in future studies on other crop species.

What has been done so far since the project started in January 2023?

Dr. Alicja Wieteska-Georgieva: 
2023 was an extremely dynamic year for the project. First of all, the scientific team was formed and the experimental procedures were established. We also planted and cultivated parallelly in greenhouses and experimental fields hundreds of tomato and pepper varieties. For the panel of lines, intended for genome-wide association studies (GWAS) in the project, we worked with 180 pepper lines and 152 tomato lines. In addition, we grew 2 BILs populations (backcrossed inbred lines) in the greenhouse, including 56 tomato lines and 110 pepper lines.

During the whole cultivation process, a detailed phenotypic analysis of the plants was carried out in terms of height, diameter, stem thickness, flowering time, weight, yield and fruit size. Interesting signs, such as top rot and other diseases, were also analyzed. Leaves were sampled at flowering and fruiting stages, as well as fruit samples for metabolic and elemental analysis were collected.

In this context, when we repeat the experiment next year, we will have a good statistical base to sift out interesting lines for our study and thus obtain even more precise data for analysis. 

What lies ahead by the end of the project?

Dr. Emil Vatov:
All the samples collected from the fruits and leaves of the plants during flowering and fruiting, Dr. Wieteska explained about, will be analyzed for mineral and nutritional composition. The gene expression of the samples will also be examined. Also, the greenhouse and field experiment will be repeated for optimal statistical data and analysis.

After the experiment we conducted in 2023, we already know which plants perform better in the greenhouse and which – in field conditions, which show a higher tolerance and which are susceptible to drought. This gives us a very valuable direction for obtaining an optimal balance between the studied phenotypic characteristics (stress resistance, nutritional and taste qualities, yield, etc.).

All these markers will be linked to their respective genomic locations in both crop species and protocols will be established to characterize the identified genes and their interaction with drought.

We already have several candidate genes associated with traits of interest to our research that are yet to be studied and analyzed. Also, we plan to apply another type of stress during the research – salinity stress.

What will be the contribution of the NatGenCrop project to the development of agriculture and science?

Dr. Emil Vatov:
In recent years, all scientific projects in our field are facing one main challenge –  how to support the adaptation of economically important crops to the climate changes of the 21st century.

Dr. Wieteska-Georgieva and I are both young scientists and a project like this gives us the unique opportunity to develop our research career and upgrade it with new knowledge and experience. We have the honor to work with proven scientists from Bulgaria and abroad, conducting our research under their guidance. In this context, the project will contribute with highly profiled scientific expertise, as well as valuable fundamental, practical and statistical information from a large set of researched crop lines that are economically significant for countries around the world.