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A confined facility for plant growth and culture

The Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics (CRAG) is a forerunning institute in the research of the molecular bases of genetic characters of interest in plants and farm animals. This independent organization was founded as a consortium made up by the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB), the Council of Scientific Research (CSIC), the University of Barcelona (UB) and the Institute of Agrifood Research and Technology (IRTA). In addition to its R&D activity, CRAG also offers a number of pioneering scientific services. CRAG’s core facilities chiefly work to support the research projects conducted by in-house users, although it also offers on-demand services to personnel from outside the center.

Among the R&D programs run by the organization, especially significant are those for development and transduction of signals, that on stress response, one on metabolism and metabolic engineering and another on plant and animal genomics. The cutting-edge research and training activities conducted by CRAG led the Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness to acknowledge the organization as a Severo Ochoa Center of Excellence. This is an award from the Spanish National Plan for Scientific and Technical and Research and Innovation that helps to finance and accredit CRAG’s work, its international impact and scientific leadership as well as its active cooperation with the social and business communities. 

The CRAG, authorized with biosafety level I

The scientific services that complement CRAG’s R&D efforts play a key role in the daily tasks of a large part of the research community. The core facilities available at CRAG provide DNA and genome sequencing services, confocal microscopy, genotyping, bioinformatic analysis and plant growth and culture. The latter facility is used by a majority of CRAG scientists and is also in high demand from external users.

In comments to Biocores, Pilar Fontanet Ferrusola, manager of this service said that CRAG greenhouses “are confined, to prevent any contact with the outside world. The air renewal is based on a system of different filters, and there is also a negative pressure system that works so that when a user enters a greenhouse chamber, any release of genetically-manipulated pollen or seeds to the outside is prevented.” These characteristics make it possible to work inside the core facility with non-genetically modified varieties and transgenic organisms, that co-exist confined inside two greenhouses.

The facility opened in 2011 and holds the necessary authorizations from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, Foodstuffs and the Environment. “It has Level I biosafety, which allows us to grow transgenic plants on the premises,” states Fontanet. Nonetheless, the greenhouses have been built for level III of biological safety, two levels above the current certification, in case it is necessary to perform research that requires it.

Scientists cultivate different species inside the greenhouses. One of the most widely used is Arabidopsis thaliana, a weed used as a model plant due to its size, duration of cycle and the fact that its genome was the first plant genome sequenced in 2000. According to Fontanet, basic studies are performed using this species, and later the results can be extrapolated to other species, also grown in this core facility, such as tobacco, tomatoes, rice or melons, among others. Anyone accessing the Biocores directory who wishes to use the greenhouses can address the greenhouse service manager describing their needs, indicating the species to be grown, the space required and description of the studies to perform. CRAG will then analyze the application, with the view to harmonizing the research being done internally with the requests from outside the center.

“It is quite a pioneering facility. For example, the environmental conditions of the plants to be grown can be modified to simulate different climates,” says Fontanet. The greenhouses are used daily by CRAG and external scientists. One example is the group of Dr. Amparo Monfort that is currently working on improvement of strawberries to increase the fruit’s nutritional quality, and select new varieties with a composition enriched in biologically healthy compounds. Its main goal is to develop new genetic markers related with the variation of nutritional characters using wild strawberries (Fragaria vesca) for the first time as models of nutritional quality for the cultivated strawberry (Fragaria x ananassa). The CRAG greenhouses have been a fundamental part of this research, by allowing the modification of temperature and humidity conditions.

The institution, with its Severo Ochoa recognition, also offers the possibility to develop in vitro cell cultures in their laboratory. This type of work has two main objectives. On one hand, maintenance of very basic cultures over time is essential for other work and tests. Also, cultures can be developed on-demand by users of the research institute or external scientists. Protocols can be developed for genetic transfers in rice, tobacco or tomato, as well as protoplasts, cultures of cells from which the walls have been removed. Even liquid cell cultures can be developed. It all adds up to a richly diversified offering that can be tailored to anyone wishing to perform research with plants or plant cell cultures.