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Minister for Science and Innovation Cristina Garmendia inaugurated the new Center for Research in Agricultural Genomics (CRAG) building, on the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) campus. The Minister was accompanies by CSIC President Rafael Rodrigo, Catalan Secretary General for Universities and Research Antoni Castellà, IRTA General Manager Josep M. Monfort, UAB Dean Ana Ripoll, UB Vice Dean for Research Jordi Alberch, and CRAG Director Pere Puigdomènech.

The facilities occupy 9,200 square meters on four floors, with 600 meters of greenhouses, allowing for the study of plant growth under controlled conditions, a genomics and mass and capillary sequencing laboratory, and a confocal microscopy and proteomics laboratory. 

Some €20 millions have been invested in the building, provided in equal parts by the Spanish National Research Council (CSIC) and the Government of Catalonia Directorate General for Research. Participation of European funds was approximately 50% in both cases. The new facility was built on land ceded by the UAB.

CRAG carries out frontier research in genomics, plant molecular biology and farm-animal genetics, as well as developing molecular applications for growing and breeding species of particular interest to the agricultural and livestock sectors. The 51 researchers working at the center come from the various institutes that have progressively joined the consortium —CSIC, IRTA, UAB, UB, ICREA and the CRAG’s own employees— and have a consolidated scientific career. According to Pere Puigdomènech, "the union of all these in one center is a commitment to seeking out future synergies among the groups, having joint visibility in national and international arenas, and optimizing resources in terms of projects and infrastructures.” In total, CRAG employs 239 people.

Pioneers in molecular genetics in Spain, some of their research groups have participated in emblematic international projects like the first sequencing of a plant gene published in Spain, sequencing the complete genome of Arabidopsis thaliana (a model plant in molecular biology), sequencing the melon genome, studying the genes that participate in plant development and their defense against pathogens, and pigment and aroma biosynthesis.

CRAG research groups have also innovated in the use of molecular approaches to improve farm plants and animals, and they have close, long-lasting ties to companies from the agrifood sector.

In 2010, CRAG was carrying out some fifty projects valued at five million euros, including six European projects, one EURYI project and one ERC Starting Grant.

Why study plant and animal genetics?

Knowledge of domesticated plants and animals is essential to the survival of the human species. Nowadays, molecular techniques, and in particular developments in genomics, provide new opportunities to deal with problems in the production of food and other industrial products needed to meet the demands of a growing population that is ever more demanding. This production must continue in the future with a lower ecological impact.

In developed countries, the agrifood industry transforms agricultural and livestock products into quality food for consumers. The industry needs economically competitive products, but consumers also demand quality and safety. Thus, basic genomics research in plant and animal species and its application in agrifood has become a priority in most of these countries.

CRAG’s priorities focus on different lines of basic and applied research:

  • Plant development
  • Plant reactions to disease and environmental stress
  • Genome structure and dynamics
  • Synthesis of secondary metabolites like pigments and aromas
  • Domestication of farm plants and animals

Applied research in this area is important and has applications in the agrifood, pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors including:

  • Molecular markers: used as quality control (identification of varietals) for plants and seeds and to reduce the time needed to obtain an improved varietal through traditional cross-germination, as they allow scientists to identify whether or not a germinated seed carries the desired characteristics without having to wait for it to grow. CRAG has worked for a variety of companies to obtain molecular markers for species like peaches and melons. Similar approaches are being used for the mass application of molecular markers to improve certain breeds of farm animals, above all cows and pigs. In this case, researchers study resistance to disease or characteristics linked to meat quality.
  • Genetic improvements: other lines applied to research include genetic improvements and the study of biodiversity of indigenous flora for their possible use in farming, or the use of wild species with genes that add useful properties (aromatic, medicinal or ornamental plants).
  • In vitro cultivation: haploid lines (the cells of which have half the normal number of chromosomes and allow for shorter genetic improvement cycles) have been obtained through in vitro cultivation of fruit and vegetable species including melons, peppers, eggplants, watermelons and cucumbers.
  • Food safety and diagnostics: one of the applications derived from molecular techniques is detecting and quantifying genetically modified organisms in food, a requirement under existing European regulations.

Recently, the International Center for Scientific Debate and CRAG organized  debate workshops with fifty international experts to seek out solutions to improve harvest yields.

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