24 May 2018

New facilities for research into sustainable agriculture

“We will prepare plants for the next green revolution”

Biologists from Utrecht and their colleagues from Wageningen are together receiving 22.4 million Euros to build a new type of controlled experimental garden. This is an unprecedented amount in the field of study, and the centre’s ambitions are equally unprecedented. The biologists are going to investigate how plants respons to their environment, to other plants and to the fungi and bacteria that they cooperate with. That knowledge is necessary to make global agriculture more sustainable and, at the same time, to feed the growing world population, according to the Utrecht research leader prof. George Kowalchuk. “With this, we are positioning the Netherlands to become a world leader in research on the necessary transition in agriculture – the next green revolution.”

The Netherlands Plant Eco-phenotyping Centre (NPEC) is how the experimental garden is called, which plant biologists and microbial ecologists of Utrecht University and Wageningen University & Research are going to develop. They are both receiving half of the Roadmap grant of 11.2 million Euros. Next to that, both universities will also each invest another 5.6 million Euros. “Together, we must strive for a higher yield and less fertilizers and pesticides. Moreover, the world will have to produce more in places where it is difficult or even impossible today. For this, large scale systematic research is necessary”, Kowalchuk amplifies.

“We can use sensors and cameras to study the interactions between individual plants and between plants and microbes.”
George Kowalchuk

Bred out

“In order to make agriculture more sustainable, first we have to know how plants actually grow”, Kowalchuk explains. “In nature, plants work together with microorganisms in order to absorb nutrients, but also for their immune system and to deal with stress due to factors like the weather. That happens very efficiently in nature, but we have bred that necessity out of today’s crops. We drench our plants with fertilisers and supplement their immune systems with pesticides, so they have it extremely easy now. Too easy, in fact; they aren’t efficient enough anymore. Without pesticides, agricultural crops suffer losses of up to 30% due to diseases caused by bacteria and fungi.”

Perfectly influencing plant growth

“We will create six research modules, in which we will be able to perfectly influence and monitor plant growth”, says Kowalchuk. “Three modules will be set up in Utrecht and three in Wageningen, but they will all be available to researchers from around the country. We aim to be operational at the Utrecht campus within two years.”

Complementary

Kowalchuk: “In general, here we will focus on the small scale: the influence of microorganisms and nutrients on plant growth, whether as individual plants or in the presence of other plants. In Wageningen, we will focus on the larger scale and high production. The modules in Utrecht and Wageningen will complement one another very well. In your research, you can even progress along the entire chain. There’s a good chance that a specific line of research will begin here, then move to Wageningen after a while. It’s a single facility, spread over two locations.”

Ecophenotype

The central question of the research how DNA and the habitat together influence plant growth. Kowalchuk: “I call it the ‘ecophenotype’. In the past, we never knew exactly how the structure of a plant, its phenotype, was caused by its genes or by the ecosystem. Now, new DNA technologies make it possible to determine the genotype for every plant. In the NPEC modules, we can study different genotypes side-by-side under the exact same circumstances, in order to find out which phenotypes develop. Then we can directly influence how big the plants can grow, how fast they grow, and how efficiently they absorb nutrients.”

World leader

NPEC will thus make it possible to grow plants that fit precisely into a specific habitat, or which are best suited to future scenarios. Kowalchuk: “With the NPEC facilities, we can work much more systematically. We will be able to test a wide variety of plant genotypes and combinations of plants and microorganisms. We can also pick apart mechanisms at a tiny scale, and predict if they will actually work in the field. That will allow us to position the Netherlands as a world leader in research into the necessary transition in agriculture - the next green revolution. To do that, we will need systematic research in order to guarantee the world’s supply of food in the future.”