The FREECLIMB project is built to match topic 1.2.1 of the PRIMA (Sect. 2) framework in developing smart and sustainable farming systems in Mediterranean countries, to preserve natural resources (water and land use) by increasing production efficiency. This will be pursued by advancing knowledge on mechanisms of plant environmental adaptation and biotic/abiotic stress resilience. The project targets major fruit tree species with the aim of improving the availability of breeding and germplasm material adapted to limited external resources (input) and future climatic scenarios predicted for the Mediterranean area, through the characterization and exploitation of local biodiversity. The project will focus on key ideotypes elaborated in collaboration with Fruit Farming Actors (FFAs, breeders, nurseries, growers) with the core objective of providing a toolkit (diverse germplasm, tools and methods) to accelerate exploitation, breeding and selection of resilient varieties in key traditional fruit crops of Mediterranean agriculture (stone fruits such as peach, apricot and almond; Citrus spp.; grape and olive).
Considering Southern countries climate as representative of changing scenarios predicted for Northern ones, FREECLIMB will strongly benefit from collaboration between the South and North Mediterranean shores: for each species targeted by the project at least two countries are involved one from the North and one from the South. The balanced composition of the consortium ensures an equal footing approach with particular attention to co- ownership of results, mutual interest and shared benefits.
To these ends, the project will pursue the following specific objectives: i) applying protocols (e.g. phenotyping methods) and integrated tools (e.g. genotyping methods, data analysis) to support the characterization, exploitation and selection of varieties adapted to a range of agro- ecological and management conditions; ii) dissecting the genetic bases of traits/processes linked to sustainability and plant resilience to biotic and abiotic stresses, with particular focus on disentangling genotype-by-environment-by-management (GxExM) interactions; iii) unravelling the molecular, biochemical and physiological basis of plant adaptation to different environmental (soil and climate) and agronomic conditions (water management) and to biotic/abiotic (single or multiple) stresses; iv) developing and applying genomics-based breeding methods to improve introgression and selection efficiency; v) devising adaptation strategies to cope with the combined effects of multiple stresses possibly co-occurring under field conditions (e.g heat waves and drought, pests and diseases); vi) exploiting germplasm resources, by identifying and characterizing spontaneous and domesticated sources of biodiversity; vii) transferring project results through training and dissemination activities dedicated especially to breeders (focusing on young scientists), nurserymen, growers and stakeholders, particularly in those countries where fruit production is less developed.
FREECLIMB will act at multiple levels to provide a better understanding of how fruit crops adapt to ever-changing environmental constraints and why certain varieties are tolerant to abiotic and biotic single or multiple stresses: i) by identifying the genes, pathways and allelic variants controlling key plant functional traits and ii) integrating multi-omics approaches for dissecting plant responses to different environments and management practices and increasing knowledge about mechanisms of adaptation to abiotic and biotic stresses. FREECLIMB will produce knowledge, tools and methods to support the development and profiling of new fruit crops varieties/hybrids that are tolerant/resistant/resilient to biotic and abiotic stresses, productive in Mediterranean climate conditions (especially water scarcity and increasing temperatures) and efficient in the use of limiting resources (water/soil fertility) taking into account the needs of the users and the legislative constraints. The project will carry out extensive characterization of Mediterranean germplasm collections, which in turn will result in valorisation of local biodiversity as a source of variability for adaptive traits to the Mediterranean conditions that may sustain agriculture in stressful environments exacerbated by climate warming. Multi-site collections developed by the project together with open access FAIR-compliant (Findable, Accessible, Interoperable, Reusable) database and repositories will remain as a legacy of FREECLIMB for future exploitation by breeders and growers. Ultimately, FREECLIMB outcomes will empower breeders to produce new varieties that are “fit for purpose”, i.e. that provide stable and high(er) yields while having an increased capacity for adaptation to varying biotic and abiotic conditions (e.g. mitigating the impacts of climate change). The dissemination, exploitation and communication plan, as well as the management of IPR issues, will strengthen and optimize the impact of FREECLIMB outputs towards the largest target of stakeholders by i) ensuring stakeholders’ commitment and fostering interactions and feedback between partners and other scientific community members and stakeholders; ii) disseminating project results horizontally to the scientific community and vertically to the stakeholders; iii) training and capacity building for young researchers and breeders and iv) enhancing open access tools to facilitate and deepen the dissemination of the outputs. FREECLIMB will help to increase the competitiveness of the Mediterranean fruit farming sectors by: (i) developing breeding methods and plant material adapted to environmental challenges; (ii) increasing accessibility to valuable material adapted to Mediterranean conditions. From an environmental point of view, FREECLIMB is envisaged to have positive effects on agriculture's impact on the environment and on biodiversity mainly due to: (i) improved use efficiency of water resources and (ii) improvement of soils use efficiency. FREECLIMB will build the foundations for long-term Mediterranean collaborations towards climate change adaptation of fruit crops’ cultivation, taking into account farmers’ contributions to a public goods-oriented bio- economy in the framework of agro-ecological methods, low (external) input farming systems, ecosystem services, in multi-stakeholder collective practices and joint production of knowledge. This project will also address the Paralleli Euromediterranean Institute’s mandate to contribute to the creation of a Euro-Mediterranean area of freedom and of economic and social development (www.paralleli.org). Access to new breeding materials freely available to growers of all partners where agriculture is still in a fragile status (according to international standards) is expected to greatly foster a virtuous trend to modernize their farming systems. In conclusion, FREECLIMB outcomes will provide science-based solutions and a North-South shore network to project Mediterranean fruit crops cultivation towards 2030 UN Sustainable Development Goals, e.g. SDG 2.4, 2.5, 12.2
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