Taking a closer look at CREA-CI

The Council for Agricultural Research and Economics (CREA- Consiglio per la ricerca in agricoltura e l’analisi dell’economia agraria) is a national institution, supervised by the Italian Ministry of Agriculture, Food Sovereignty and Forests (Masaf). The Research Centre for Cereal and Industrial Crops (CREA-CI) is one of the 12 research centres (6 related to specific supply chains and 6 dedicated to horizontal topics) in which CREA is structured. CREA-CI, in its seats located throughout Italy (Vercelli, Bergamo, Rovigo, Bologna, Caserta, Foggia and Acireale) deals with cereal and industrial crop supply chains for food, feed and non-food applications, using a multidisciplinary approach. Focus is kept on valorisation of productions through plant breeding and omics sciences, biodiversity preservation and exploitation (https://www.crea.gov.it/en/home).

The activity of CREA-CI in Vercelli has been focused on rice (Oryza sativa) since its foundation in 1908 (Fig. 1) and a huge breeding activity has been carried out, leading to the release of important rice varieties, like Vialone Nano and Roma, and making the institute the reference centre in Italy for this crop.

Figure 1 - Top left: the old headquarters of CREA in Vercelli in 1926; right (top and bottom, pictures from 1950): a worker transplanting pure lines of rice, and workers threshing the harvested rice; bottom left: samples of different varieties of rice still conserved in the rice museum of the institute.

From 2018, with the reform of CREA, the institute acquired the skills related to bread wheat and a large collection of bread wheat germplasm, adding this crop as big research topic.

Nowadays, the genebank holds 708 rice accessions and more than 4000 bread wheat genotypes (Fig. 2).

Figure 2 - Part of the collection stored in the CREA-CI genebank of Vercelli.

CREA-CI of Vercelli is involved in several national and international projects on both rice and wheat, and coordinates the National Network of Varietal Trials for common wheat and rice, and for the qualitative testing of the new varieties of T. aestivum and T. spelta for entering the national registry.

Figure 3 - Aerial view of the Research Centre, surrounded by the experimental rice fields.


CREA is involved in the AGENT project, mainly in WP2, WP3, WP4 (being leader of Task 4.1) and WP7.

CREA provided a set of 1,000 SSD lines for the precision collection (WP2 – Fig. 4) and is testing spring wheat cultivars under drought stress in two locations in Southern Italy and its own precision collection for yellow rust in two locations in Northern and Central Italy (WP3). In the growing season 2021-22, CREA multiplied and dispatched to the evaluators (EVA network and the Italian seed diversity network Rete Semi Rurali-RSR) over 600 accessions of bread wheat, durum wheat (Triticum durum) and barley (Hordeum vulgare) (WP7).

In WP4 CREA is involved in the QTLome development and GWAS analyses with the genotypic data from the whole AGENT project.

Figure 4 - The Agent field in Vercelli (May 2021). On the left, plots of the Standard Check trials, on the right the single rows of the SSDs of the Precision Collection.

Figure 5 – The end of harvesting of the AGENT field in 2022. From left to right Patrizia Vaccino, Francesca Sansoni, Mauro Marangon (field worker), Simone di Siena (technical assistant) and Lorenzo Sena (PhD student)

The AGENT team of CREA-CI

Patrizia Vaccino

Patrizia Vaccino leads the CREA-CI team. She is a plant geneticist with experience in germplasm management (genotyping, phenotyping), and wheat quality. She is in charge of the bread wheat and rice collections of CREA-CI. Principal investigator of several national projects focused on wheat (quality and germplasm characterization) and responsible of the National Network of Varietal Trials for common wheat and rice, and author of several research publications.

Francesca Sansoni

Francesca Sansoni was hired as scientific assistant for the AGENT project. Her expertise is in plant physiology, molecular biology and evolution. Her main focus in the project is phenotyping and managing the bioinformatic work of WP4.

Nicola Pecchioni

Nicola Pecchioni is the Director of CREA-CI. His main expertise is the study of the genetic mechanisms related to stress tolerance and to the adaptation of plants to the environment. He is also a plant breeder, and developed barley cultivars and markers and tools for marker-assisted selection.

Simone di Siena is a young technician involved in all the field work related to the AGENT project: sowing, phenotyping and harvesting.

Lorenzo Sena, PhD student at the University of Modena and Reggio-Emilia, Italy, is helping for field and lab activities, and is involved in the bioinformatic analysis.

Feedback/Voices from the genebank managers and young scientists (collected during a panel dicussion at 4th Progress Meeting)

Genebank Managers: What is the impact that the AGENT project had for your institute?
“The biggest advantage of participating in the AGENT project was the comparison with other gene banks. As part of WP7, we visited IPK and NPPC and compared our approaches individually. We found that our procedures and individual steps for conserving genetic resources at CRI are of a high standard and meet recognised international standards. Another advantage we see is the utilisation of historical data that would only have been preserved in the library if it had not been used in the AGENT project. And now they are still being used today. We are also very positive about the use of SNP to assess the SSD of selected accessions.” Dagmar Janovská, CRI, Czech Republic

“For me as a new GB manager, the project was a good opportunity to learn from other GB managers, to update our GB manual and conduct the review. AGENT provided the necessary experience to trigger other projects in the genebank, and helped with fundraising from Ministry of Education and through participation in other European projects. We have also started building SSD populations in other species.“ Maja Boczkowska, IHAR-PIB, Poland

“For NARDI this is the first European project in which we participate, and the first genotyping of our collection. We benefited from digitisation of our historical data and gather more traits than expected in our trials. We suggest to include common checks in field trials to better bridge evaluations and would like to join the EVA wheat and barley network.” Liliana Vasilescu, NARDI, Romania

“The cooperation between institutes was important after Coronavirus situation. AGENT is good to share the connection between pheno and geno data with the researchers: platform and pipeline.” Moshe Ronen, TAU, Israel

“AGENT played a big role in promoting digitisation of historical data. During a phase of financial cuts, the involvement in the project provides visibility and some financial security. AGENT pipelines and standards will be applied to future data collection.“ Beate Schierscher, WBF-Agroscope, Switzerland

Young scientists: What is the impact of the AGENT project for you?
“Open science is the way to go. The multidisciplinary approach in AGENT is good to break barriers between WP and disciplines and highlighted computation issues present in GB.“ Erwan Le Floch, INRAE, France

“The biggest impact for me is in the standardization of data, which going forward will make it easier to have the data available in central place and keep this way of working.“ Joseph Ruff, RBGK, UK

“I was involved in everything in the process from seeds multiplication to data analysis. The project provides good visibility to lobby with funders. It also established a social infrastructure for multilocation field trials, as exemplified by the abiotic stress trials that INIA conducted together with CREA.“ Diana Lammerding, INIA, Spain