Yield and nutritional properties of vegetable crops are affected by unfavourable environmental conditions, such as drought, salinity, extreme temperatures, and pollutants. NatGenCrop aims at improving stress tolerance of major vegetable crops (tomato, pepper, legumes, lettuce) and design new strategies for maintaining higher yields and food quality even during unfavourable weather conditions. One of the major research directions is exploring the wide genetic and phenotypic variations of vegetables to improve agronomical traits under abiotic stresses (e.g drought, salinity, and extreme temperatures). A suite of genetics and genomics approaches, such as GWAS in combination with QTL, will be employed to identify genes contributing to high yield and stress tolerance. In another research direction, the fruit metabolic compositions will be characterized in terms of flavour and healthy related compounds to assess the impact of abiotic stress on fruit quality. A wide range of plant phenotypic, and metabolic traits will be evaluated, followed by transcriptomic profiling in two genome-wide association (GWAS) panels and two backcrossed inbred lines (BILs) populations for both tomato and pepper. The identified genes will be subsequently validated by CRISPR-Cas9 editing technologies and field trials.

To implement this ambitious work program, a new research department “Crop Quantitative Genetics” will be established in the Center of Plant Systems Biology and Biotechnology (CPSBB) in Plovdiv. The new research department will scale up the applied research on vegetable breeding in CPSBB and the region. Furthermore, the new CPSBB department will link with Bulgarian and international research organizations, companies, and farmer associations in the field of crop science, creating an ecosystem network that is highly attractive to talented researchers and brings the innovations to end users for the benefit of the society.

Overall Objective:

To exploit the vast natural genetic variation in vegetable crops, using quantitative genetics and systems biology approaches, in order to understand plant responses to abiotic stresses and achieve crops with enhanced resilience to stresses as well as improved nutritional properties.

Objective 1
Establishment of a new research department “Crop Quantitative Genetics”. With the financial assistance of NatGenCrop, seven researchers (the ERA Cchair holder himself, three postdocs, and three PhD students) will be employed. Additionally, two persons will be employed as technical personnel. Moreover, the group is expected to grow when new third-party funding is attracted by the ERA Chair holder. Overall, this objective will be measured by creation of a new research department in CPSBB with at least seven persons.

Objective 2
Excellent research and innovation: Genetic, genomics, and phenotypic characterization of the vast collection of vegetable lines existing in CPSBB; GWAS analysis for identification of genes associated with traits of agronomical and human health significance (e.g. tomato and pepper fruit size, fruit shape, colour, metabolic composition, including antioxidants

Objective 3
Educating PhD students in the fields of plant systems biology and biotechnology. CPSBB has accreditation to deliver PhD degree and NatGenCrop envisages employing three PhD students. This objective will be measured by the number of PhD students educated. In addition to the three students paid by the NatGenCrop budget, more students can be recruited through various national and international funding schemes. Overall, NatGenCrop plans to educate at least four PhD students.