Rising ocean temperatures could turn kelp farming from a promising blue industry in Europe to an unsustainable industry around the globe. Thus one major current challenge in this industry is to bred or genetically engineer heat resistant strains. However, breeding requires repeated selection over several generations (and thereby needs many years) and also reduces genetic diversity that insures against unforeseen environmental challenges; while gene modified organisms are not allowed to be grown in the sea in Europe.
The KELPRIME project aims to engineer heat-resistant kelp without altering its genetic makeup and diversity. We adopt a technique from agriculture termed 'priming' that enhances yield and stress resistance in crop plants. To 'prime', small life-cycle stages deliberately are exposed to heat stress. Similar to vaccination that boosts an immune response, priming likely boosts defense mechanisms in plants. If this is transferable to kelp, the harvestable large kelp fronds could then activate defense mechanisms faster, stronger, or earlier when meeting the stress again.
We have assembled a multi-disciplinary team with expertise in kelp cultivation, molecular biology, and genomics, in order to test for the build-up and stability of an epigenetic priming memory that could transfer induced heat resistance across generations. If successful, this work will be a milestone in sustainable bio-engineering and strain improvement of kelp. Inducing heritable stress resistance can contribute to the stable production of kelp and the ability to restore kelp forests under rising sea temperatures and other environmental challenges.
Rising ocean temperatures are compromising the health and growth of macroalgae and, thus, threaten the production security of farmed macroalgae commodities with an annual value of $US 13.3 billion. While 97% of the global macroalgae biomass is produced in Asia, farming of macroalgae (particularly kelp) is becoming a new bioeconomy sector in Europe and the Americas, where it decreases harvesting pressure on wild stocks, and provides new job opportunities. However, economic losses after heat events can make this budding industry unsustainable. While kelp breeding allows to develop superior cultivars, the associated reduction in genetic diversity often leads to poor performance and productivity under environmental challenges. Moreover, breeding is a long-term process that requires artificial selection over several generations. In order to secure production under environmental challenges, the KELPRIME project aims to establish ‘priming’, a common technique to rapidly enhance yield and stress resistance in crop agriculture, as a novel bio-engineering technique in kelp cultivation. We have assembled an interdisciplinary team combining expertise in kelp cultivation, farming and development with unique molecular skills and resources to characterize positive priming effects in the cultivation of two commercially important kelp species, and to test for the first time whether these effects rely primarily on the formation of an epigenetic stress memory. Without knowing the mechanisms underlying positive priming effects, priming can’t be commercially exploited as novel kelp engineering technology. If successful, this work will be a milestone in sustainable bio-engineering and strain improvement of macroalgae, leading to high-profile publications, and igniting research lines aiming to exploit the wide application potential of priming.