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Sunflowers - SUNRISE project with INRA Toulouse

Sunflower genome reveals symphony of genes involved in oil production and flowering

Less than one year after the decoding of the sunflower genome, in-depth analyses of said genome have revealed the hundreds of genes that work together to regulate flowering, and those that are involved in the production of oil. Carried out by INRA scientists1 within the framework of the SUNRISE project in the French Investments for the Future Programme and in collaboration with the International sunflower genome consortium2, the studies were published online in the May 22, 2017 issue of Nature. These initial findings will help in designing the enhanced sunflower varieties of tomorrow, which will be better adapted to the inevitable changes in agriculture as it faces new environmental challenges, and in particular climate change.

Updated on 06/01/2017
Published on 05/22/2017

In June 20163, INRA scientists - within the framework of the SUNRISE Investments for the Future Programme (see insert below) and in collaboration with the International sunflower genome consortium2 - decoded sunflower genes in their entirety, thereby providing science with a wealth of data.

New and improved sunflower oil

Over the course of history, the genes of cultivated sunflowers have been selected in two ways: through the domestication of wild species by North American indigenous peoples, and through the varietal selection that results from crossing the most productive varieties. The goal was to improve traits of agronomic interest, such as resistance to disease and oil yields. Now that the reference genome of sunflowers has been decoded, scientists can pinpoint genes that are of agronomic interest more precisely and three times faster than before.

The scientists compared the DNA of 80 sunflower varieties selected specifically for their capacity to produce oil, or seeds for consumption. The analysis of the differences, coupled with basic data, allowed the scientists to construct a comprehensive panorama of the network of genes involved in the production of oil, but also to identify the genes with the greatest agronomic potential. The result will allow the demands not only of consumers to be met, in terms of the nutritional quality of sunflower oil, but also those of the agrifood industry, in terms of technological potential for making production chains more sustainable and efficient.

Flowering time is key to adapting crops to different climates

The INRA scientists discovered that the sunflower genome, unlike the genomes of plants from the same family such as lettuce and artichoke, doubled in size some 30 million years ago. This “recent” duplication explains the high number of genes (more than 52,000) in today’s sunflower. Despite this complexity, the scientists managed to identify the genes that express themselves specifically in floral organs, and that govern flowering time. Knowing how these genes are organised within the genome will speed up the process of improving sunflower varieties. So farmers will have access to a wide range of early flowering varieties which will enable sunflowers to be grown in more regions of the world.

Genome: a tool for adapting crops to climate change and combatting disease

Among major crops, sunflowers require the least amount of input and are also frugal when it comes to water. In order to reap the benefits of these advantages in a context of global warming and the emergence of more aggressive parasites, scientists intend to study the genes of wild varieties of sunflower that allow the plant to survive periods of severe drought and resist the parasites that colonise zones where sunflower crops are grown. Those genes can then be selected and transferred to cultivated varieties to create new and improved varieties.
These initial findings from the decoding of the genome will allow scientists to design the sunflower varieties of tomorrow, which will be more efficient and better adapted to the inevitable changes in agriculture that will come about in the face of new environmental challenges, and in particular in the current context of climate change. These new varieties will satisfy food and industrial demands, but also rise to the economic challenges the sector is up against.

1These studies, coordinated by researchers from the Laboratory of Plant-Microbe Interactions (LIPM, INRA-CNRS), involved many INRA teams in Occitanie-Toulouse (the French Plant Genomic Resources Centre, CNRGV); the Genome & Transcriptome platform; the GenPhy2SE laboratory for genetics, physiology and livestock systems; the Mathematics and Applied Informatics research unit of Toulouse (MIAT); researchers from the Genetics, Diversity & Ecophysiology of Cereals unit (INRA Auvergne Rhône-Alpes); the Institute of Plant Sciences Paris-Saclay and the Research Unit for the Study of Plant Genome Polymorphism. Thanks to the teams of researchers from INRA’s Occitanie-Toulouse centre within the framework of the SUNRISE project, supported by the Occitanie-Pyrénées – Méditerranée region and the industrial partners Sofiprotéol and Libragen, the genome platform GeT-PlaGe of Génopole in Toulouse was able to acquire the PacBio RS II sequencer in 2015. Thanks to the sequencer, the reference sunflower genome was decoded.

2This consortium is coordinated by the University of British Columbia in Canada and INRA



Reference: Badouin, H., Gouzy, J., Grassa, C.J., Murat, F., Staton, S.E., Cottret, L., Lelandais-Brière, C., Owens, G., Carrère, S., Mayjonade, B., Legrand, L., Gill, N., Kane, N.C., Bowers, J.E., Hubner, S., Bellec, A., Bérard, A., Bergès, H., Blanchet, N., Boniface, M.-C., Brunel, D., Catrice, O., Chaidir, N., Claudel, C., Donnadieu, C., Faraut, T., Fievet, G., Helmstetter, N., King, M., Knapp, S.J., Lai, Z., Le Paslier, M.-C., Lippi, Y., Lorenzon, L., Jennifer Mandel, Marage, G., Marchand, G., Marquand, E., Bret-Mestries, E., Morien, E., Nambeesan, S., Nguyen, T., Pégot-Espagnet, P., Pouilly, N., Raftis, F., Sallet, E., Schiex, T., Thomas, J., Vandecasteele, C., Varès, D., Vear, F., Vautrin, S., Crespi, M., Mangin, B., Burke, J.M., Salse, J., Muños, S., Vincourt, P., Rieseberg, L.H., Langlade, N.B., 2017. The sunflower genome provides insights into oil metabolism, flowering and Asterid evolution,  Nature (2017) doi:10.1038/nature22380


Sunflowers, a few figures:

  • More than 270 varieties identified
  • 30 million hectares in the world, 71% of which is in Europe
  • 700 000 hectares cultivated in France and approximately 223 500 hectares in Occitanie

52 000 genes, a genome which is 20% larger than the human genome

Scientific contact(s):

  • Nicolas Langlade (33 (0)5 61 28 57 78) INRA-CNRS Laboratory for Plant-Microorganism Interactions
Press Relations:
INRA News Office (33 (0)1 42 75 91 86), Anne-Sophie Lubrano-Lavadera / Sunrise Project (33 (0)5 61 28 55 61)
Associated Division(s):
Plant Health and Environment, Plant Biology and Breeding
Associated Centre(s):
logo sunrise. © INRA

The SUNRISE project

The SUNRISE project is part of the Investments for the Future of Biotechnology and Bioresources Programme. With €21M in funding over 8 years, of which €7M is provided by the French National Research Agency (ANR), the project aims to develop new sunflower varieties with a better drought tolerance. The project includes a collaboration of nine public research laboratories (LIPM, AGIR, MIAT, CNRGV and LEREPS from Toulouse, EPGV and GQE from Versailles Grignon, BFP from Bordeaux and LBD from Paris), one technical center (Terres Inovia), five seed companies (Caussade Semences, Maisadour Semences, RAGT 2n, Soltis, Syngenta France), and one biotechnology company (Biogemma).

Visit the SUNRISE website: www.sunrise-project.fr/en/ 

. © INRA