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NASSTEC: a European project to promote the use of native seeds for grassland restoration

Volume 12 Number 1 - January 2015

Costantino Bonomi

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NASSTEC - what is it?

NASSTEC (The NAtive Seed Science, TEchnology and Conservation Initial Training Network) is an EU Marie Curie Initial Training Network that will train 11 PhD students at the initial stage of their research careers in native seed science, conservation and use.  Like all Marie Curie actions, NASSTEC is designed to promote training of researchers and their transnational mobility, making research an attractive career for people in the early stage of their academic training.

There are 11 NASSTEC researchers at the moment, originating from 7 countries: Canada, Croatia, Italy, Sri Lanka, Spain, Portugal and the United States. According to the Marie Curie mobility rules they have to based in a country other than the one where they have spent the last three years.

An additional person will join the network in December 2015 as an experienced researcher - if you are interested look out for this position that will be advertised in mid 2015 on the NASSTEC website.

NASSTEC - The partnership

NASSTEC involves 7 full partners where the various researchers in the network are based: these include four academic institutions - MUSE - Trento Science Museum in Italy - as coordinator, the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew in England, Pavia University in Italy, the James Hutton Institute in Scotland and three native seed producers, two small companies: Scotia Seeds in Scotland and Semillas Silvestres in Spain and Syngenta Seeds in the Netherlands. Seven other institutions are associated with the project and contribute to the training and research of the students; these include Kings Park in Perth Australia,the Jardin Botanico Atlantico in Spain, the National Trust for Scotland, The European Research Agency in Rome, a local public Administration in Trento and two small companies of tourist and research services in Spain and in Scotland.

NASSTEC - The need

Habitat loss and degradation caused by human activity has led to an increased demand for native seeds for restoration purposes that is not met by an adequate supply in many countries. Large scale native seed production is now a significant challenge for native seed companies and one of the main constraints for effective habitat restoration. In Europe, native seeds are highly demanded for a wide range of grassland restoration activities such as those involved in roadwork, ski slopes, new buildings and quarries. Additionally the use of native seeds is mandatory in all Natura 2000 sites according to the EU Habitat Directive, and yet native seeds are not widely available in Europe. The market is underdeveloped and only small scale operations are active, detached from the academic sector and very often lacking baseline knowledge on key species, their biology and seed ecology. Commonly restoration is carried out using non-native plant material in the absence of seed quality protocols, policies and adequate training for restoration practitioners, thus introducing potentially invasive species and mixing up the ecotypes of widely distributed species.

NASSTEC - The aim

NASSTEC will focus its efforts in the next four years in promoting the use of native seeds for grassland restoration, building the capacity in local companies for large-scale native seed production and lobbying the relevant stakeholders to widely promote the use of native seeds in land restoration and reclamation activities, both in the public and private sector. NASSTEC’s ambitious plan aims to create the conditions for a win-win situation, providing ecosystem services, fighting soil erosion, generating income and conserving biodiversity with native seeds.

NASSTEC plans to meet these needs by delivering well-trained human resources to support industries and develop new companies, to bridge academia and industry by delivering key information where needed with project manuals, guidelines and toolkits, linking developed markets in US & Australia with Europe, in order to stimulate the largely unexpressed potential of the European market.

Three specific pilot projects for grassland restoration will be carried out in four EU bio-geographical regions (Alpine, Atlantic, Continental and Mediterranean) to demonstrate the potential for grassland restoration, e.g. in ski slopes in the Alps, in major roadwork development in the Scottish highlands and on arable fields in the Mediterranean.

NASSTEC - The Science

NASSTEC plans to interconnect the public and private sector through the establishment of a multidisciplinary European doctoral school with the aim of integrating knowledge in plant ecology, molecular biology, taxonomy, conservation, seed biology, breeding and horticulture.  The scientific programme of NASSTEC is articulated in three sub-programmes mimicking the plant reintroduction cycles and the relevant steps necessary for successful habitat restoration.

Sub-programme A covers in situ seed sampling and includes the following three PhD projects:

  • 1A - based at MUSE - A bio-geographical approach to species selection for the Alpine and Atlantic region.
  • 2A - based at Semillas Silvestres - Selection of high-quality grasses for the Mediterranean and Continental bio-region.
  • 3A - based at the James Hutton Institute- Methods for seed and seedling phenomics.

Sub-programme B covers seed biology characterisation and includes four PhD projects:

  • 4B - based at Pavia University - Bio-geographical aspects of seed dormancy.
  • 5B - based at Semillas Silvestres - Propagation protocols for the restoration of grassland habitat in Europe.
  • 6B - based at Pavia University - Seed longevity in storage.
  • 7B - based at RBG Kew - Life history traits in contrasting environments - intra-species variation in stress tolerance.

Sub-programme C covers production and deployment of seed and includes four PhD projects and 1 post-doc:

  • 8C - based at Scotia Seeds - Improving seed quality in large-scale production.
  • 9C - based at RBG Kew - Propagation and seed multiplication protocols for herbaceous flora.
  • 10C - based at Syngenta - Seed pre-treatments of native species for optimal establishment, for use in in situ restoration.
  • 11 C - based at MUSE - Certification of seed quality and provenance.
  • 12 C - the post-doc - based at Scotia Seeds - Transfer of NASSTEC knowledge to European seed producers.

NASSTEC - The Training

From an academic point of view, all students are registered in a cross-cutting doctoral programme managed by the University of Pavia and upon successful completion of the training programme they will be awarded PhD qualifications in Earth and Environmental Science.  The training programme includes both host-based training and network training, delivering a balanced scheme of exchange visits and secondments, a rich programme of events, news of network achievements and research information.

The network training events include two summer schools providing training respectively in seed collecting in the Asturias in Spain and in seed germination and processing; three specialist workshops that will deliver training in molecular diversity at the James Hutton Institute in Dundee, Scotland; in intellectual property rights, patenting and grant writing at Syngenta, in the Netherlands; in education and outreach at MUSE in Trento, Italy.

The outputs of the project will be presented in the final conference that will be held at RBG Kew in summer 2017 provisionally entitled “Native seeds for environmental mitigation”.

The training is completed by three one-month secondments to other network partners, three network annual meetings, various exchange visits and an education and outreach programme.

NASSTEC - The Outreach Programme

It is particularly important to reach out to the wider public and society in general to raise awareness of the importance of native seeds in ensuring appropriate ecosystem services and biodiversity conservation. It is also necessary to gain the support of civil society for the research being carried out by NASSTEC, demonstrating that it is highly relevant for human wellbeing and environmental conservation, and that it meets the request for Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI).

Contact with local schools and community organisations, newsletters, press releases and the use of social media will encourage practical activities based around native seeds such as seed collecting days, seed sowing events and display gardens of native plants. Globally NASSTEC researchers will carry out a selection of the following outreach activities:

  • Design inquiry-based science education (IBSE) activities for schools, building on the INQUIRE project , selecting, adapting and using established resources for environmental education in schools and botanic gardens relevant for native seeds and plants, both in formal and informal settings.
  • Take part to the local editions of the Researcher’s night, usually held in September, contributing with a stand to illustrate the benefits of grassland restoration using native seeds.
  • Playing the part of Marie Curie Ambassadors, carrying out day visits to local schools, introducing the project and demonstrating its benefit to society, using one of the IBSE activities designed earlier. These visits might include seed collecting days and seed sowing events that will also involve parents of pupils, to raise awareness of the importance of native seeds and of the research being carried out in NASSTEC.
  • Taking part in the Fame lab contest  to communicate NASSTEC research to the wider public. This contest aims at electing the brightest science communicator in each partner country, eventually reaching the European finals.
  • Hosting two-week school teacher placements in each partner lab during the summer break, providing local teachers with the opportunity to understand the research being carried out in partner institutions and raising awareness of the use of native flora among teachers and educators.
  • Developing native flower bed displays in 5 key cities of the partner countries, celebrating NASSTEC with native seeds and wildflower grassland displays, showcasing the relevance of native biodiverse grasslands and its garden value.

NASSTEC - The long-term impact

NASSTEC ambitiously plans to make a long-term impact on plant conservation in Europe, increasing the competitiveness of human capital and ensuring that it is directed towards the development of a sustainable and dynamic European native seed industry capable of supplying the native seeds required for sustainable grassland restoration. The ultimate goal of NASSTEC is to stimulate a wider use of native seeds in grassland restoration at the European scale.

For further news and updates on the development of the project and its outputs check out

NASSTEC is funded by the European Union under FP7