HelEx: Biodiversity in drought- and heat-resistant sunflowers fields

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In the multinational Horizon Europe project HelEx, funded by the European Commission, knowledge and tools will be established to accelerate the breeding of sunflower varieties adapted to extreme drought and heat stress. In parallel, the environmental impact of sunflower cultivation will be assessed.

The effects of climate change are becoming more obvious every year. One of the most severely impacted sectors of human activity is agriculture and the reliability of food production. Global warming is affecting agricultural practices through the occurrence of more common stress conditions and more intense environmental extremes. These factors expose crops to heat and drought. In addition, extreme environmental conditions largely reduce resources for pollinators and associated wildlife communities, impacting their survival and leading to biodiversity erosion in agricultural systems worldwide. Thus, in the project “HelEx - Use of extremophile Helianthus species to mitigate climate change impact on feedstock and ecosystem services provided by sunflower”, experiments with sunflowers will be performed to show how sunflower varieties adapted to climate change may support food safety, biodiversity, and key ecosystems services provided by sunflowers and associated wildlife communities.

In the consortium of 18 international partner institutes from nine countries, sunflower varieties bred for their adaptations to extreme drought and heat will be tested to assess their productivity and tolerance to environmental stress. Molecular processes that improve tolerance to extreme conditions will be determined. By using state-of-the-art monitoring technologies, potential impact of selected sunflower varieties on pollinators, associated biodiversity, and ecosystem services will be assessed. Finally, the sunflowers will be tested in cooperation with diverse stakeholder groups - including producers, processors, distributors, and consumers - for their socio-economic impacts across different sectors of society. The UNESCO Chair at Carinthia University of Applied Sciences will provide project support through determining the impact of different sunflower varieties on biodiversity associated to sunflowers using a set of molecular tools for biodiversity analysis.

To ensure the optimal outcome of the research efforts, actors from across the value chain will be included. Innovative targeted strategies to reach societal groups will raise awareness on biotechnology, biodiversity, and benefit sharing. On top of this, integrative training for students and young scientist with diverse scientific backgrounds will be provided to tackle interdisciplinary challenges and develop sustainable innovations. Through these steps and collaboration amongst institutions across Europe, HelEx strives to contribute to the improved crop production security, human health, as well to biodiversity promotion in modern agricultural practices.

Project duration: May 2023 – April 2027.

Financed by: Horizon Europe, European Commission