Carbon Capture and the new Frontier for Breeding for Food Security


João Paulo Pennacchi, PhD in Environment Sciences – Lancaster University/Rothamsted Research (UK)

The photosynthesis, or the pathway through which plants capture carbonic dioxide (CO2) from atmosphere, using water (H2O) and sunlight and releasing oxygen (O2), is the main process responsible by life on Earth on its current form. It is also one of the main drivers of plant biomass accumulation and crop yields around the globe.

With the increase of world population and changes in food consumption patterns, agricultural activities are under high pressure to keep food production ahead of demand and ensure food security, in a sustainable way and even in less predictable climate scenarios.

Mapping plants with higher efficiency in the process of capturing CO2 without using extra resources (as nutrients and water) is a key point for breeding of high-yielding and climate-resilient crops. In this scope, a PhD project was carried out at Rothamsted Research and Lancaster University, funded by the Brazilian CNPq under the Science without Borders Program and as part of the 20:20 Wheat® project, between 2013 and 2017. In collaboration with Professor Martin Parry’s group and supervision of Dr. Elizabete Carmo-Silva, the project, allowed the analysis of the genetic variation in carbon capture efficiencies in wheat plants and the map of genomic regions related to this variation. It also evaluated the different strategies of plants to build and maintain high and stable yields under contrasting climatic conditions. The outcomes of this research reinforced the importance of physiological parameters to inform the breeding process for new wheat varieties (Parry et al., 2017, Pennacchi et al., 2018a; Pennacchi et al., 2018b).

Although the importance of these physiological parameters for breeding is highly recognized nowadays, their evaluation is a limiting point for genotype’s screening. With the advent of genetic manipulation, the capacity of generating new genotypes is far ahead of the capacity of evaluating their characteristics, or their phenotype. Phenotyping can be defined as the observation of properties of an organism, in multiple levels, that are produced by the interaction of the genotype and the environment. Phenotyping is currently known as the new frontier for crop breeding and the development of high-throughput methods is urgent.

This new science frontier motivated, in 2018, a collaboration with Dr. Malcolm Hawkesford’s group at Rothamsted Research, in a post-doctoral project funded by the Rutherford Fellowship through the Flexible Talent Mobility Award (FTMA) and UKRI (UK Research and Investment) and as part of the Designing Future Wheat® project. This research focused on the use of a phenotyping platform, the Field Scanalyzer, to evaluate wheat variates using a high-throughput imaging system running in a 24-hour shift, every day. The data generated by the platform was compared with measurements of multiple physiological parameters using hand-held devices aiming to validate and understand the potential of the high-throughput measurements in explaining plant physiological process and in improving  and speeding up the screening of multiple genotypes. The outcomes of this research will be released in the near future.

The next step for this UK-Brazil joint collaboration involves the use of mutual expertise to deeply understand the impact of carbon capture plasticity, and its methods of evaluation, to crop yields and adaptation of genetic materials under fluctuating environmental conditions and different agronomical techniques. The proposal of new research projects and workshops is part of the plan for the consolidation of this UK-Brazil collaboration and expansion of new partnerships.

Research outcomes

Parry MAJ, Pennacchi JP, Robledo-Arratia L, Carmo Silva, E (2017) Photosynthetic improvements of wheat plants. In: Langridge P (2017) Achieving sustainable cultivation of wheat Volume 1: Breeding, quality traits, pests and diseases.

Pennacchi JP, Carmo Silva E, Andralojc PJ, Powers S, Feuerhelm D, Parry MAJ (2018). Dissecting the main yield drivers in a wheat mapping population. Agronomy, 8: 94 (

Pennacchi JP, Carmo-Silva E, Andralojc PJ, Lawson T, Allen AM, Raines CA, Parry MAJ (2018) Stability of wheat grain yields over three field experiments in the UK. Food and Energy Security. DOI: 10.1002/fes3.147 (

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