New research module Ecotron enables the study of fully controlled small scale ecosystems
Module fills the gap between the field and lab experiments
The new state-of-the-art Ecotron module of the Netherlands Plant-Ecophenotyping Centre (NPEC) is now fully functional. The module, located in the new NPEC-dedicated building on the campus of Utrecht University, allows researchers to simulate and study agricultural and natural ecosystems. It consists of 36 enclosed units in which environmental conditions can be fully controlled and monitored. These units provide researchers with the tools to mimic the complexity of the real world and to study processes that are at work both above- and belowground.
Within each of the 36 units, researchers are able to create specifically designed small-scale ecosystems to meet their research needs. They decide what plants they combine and what type of soil they use, and even which microbes and animals like nematodes, insects and worms are included. At the same time, they are also able to fully control the environmental conditions, both above- and belowground. Researchers set their desired conditions with respect to temperature and humidity, and have full control over the amount of daylight the plants get and when and how much it “rains” within each unit. The soil within each unit also acts like natural soil and has a natural soil profile.
Several plant characteristics can be measured from within the units. Color cameras allow the tracking and quantification of the above- and belowground plant development, and water can be sampled from several soil depths. An array of sensors measures environmental factors, such as temperature, humidity and water pressure.
Because Ecotron provides facilities that allow for the integrated study of both aboveground and belowground processes, it allows researchers to explore, for instance, how plants interact with other plants and soil life, what combinations of crops and plant traits work well together, and what conditions ensure the efficient use of nutrients and the preservation of soil fertility.
Ecotron is one of six modules that together form NPEC, the Netherlands Plant Eco-phenotyping Centre. This centre is a collaboration between Utrecht University and Wageningen University & Research. NPEC’s main purpose is to facilitate state-of-the-art measurements of the observable traits of plants, i.e. their phenotypes, with a high degree of throughput and accuracy under ecologically relevant conditions.
Ecotron allows studying, for example, the response of agricultural and natural ecosystems to future environmental conditions, such as lower amounts of rainfall and increased temperature.
Using the six modules of NPEC, researchers will be able to study the characteristics of plants on a wide range of scales, from small-scale lab experiments to research outside in the open field. Valérian Méline, manager of NPEC Utrecht, explains the position of the Ecotron module within NPEC. Méline: “Ecotron fills the gap between the field and lab experiments. We can mimic the complexity of real-life conditions in closed systems where all aspects can be controlled and measured. This allows studying, for example, the response of agricultural and natural ecosystems to future environmental conditions, such as lower amounts of rainfall and increased temperature.”
Three modules in Utrecht
Ecotron is the first of three modules in Utrecht that is fully functional. The two other modules in Utrecht will become operational by April 2023. Three other NPEC-modules are located in Wageningen.
The facilities at NPEC are available to academic researchers and collaborating corporate Research & Development departments.