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The Nodes of the German Phenotyping Network (DPPN)

DPPN node Forschungszentrum Jülich

The Institute of Bio- and Geosciences – Plant Sciences (IBG-2) has been one of the leading plant phenotyping centres worldwide for a number of years. "We established the Jülich Plant Phenotyping Center (JPPC) at Forschungszentrum Jülich as one of the first institutions in the world in order to foster plant phenotyping as a field of major scientific interest. We coordinate the European network and are key players in establishing the German platform DPPN,” says Prof. Ulrich Schurr, head of IBG-2 and coordinator of DPPN.

Forschungszentrum Jülich’s most notable contribution to DPPN consists in its special technical expertise in developing methods, automation, robotics, and image analysis. However, phenotyping also involves the simulation and measurement of environmental conditions in order to achieve results relevant for practical applications, such as plant breeding and cultivation. This is another unique feature of IBG-2, as there are very few centres worldwide that combine technological expertise and physiological know-how in this way. “We thus have ideal conditions to pursue both: cutting-edge plant phenotyping research, as well as its practical applications,” says Prof. Schurr.

IBG-2 covers the entire range of modern plant phenotyping methods. In the last few years, mechanistic analyses using complex methods (e.g. such as tomography) have revealed the dynamics of plant-interaction with its environment. “That helps us to understand why particular plants adapt to certain kinds of stress better than others do,” says Prof. Schurr. The development and application of automated systems being able to examine properties of root systems of entire plant collections under well-defined soil and climatic conditions is another specific asset to the research portfolio of the IBG-2. This is how the institute provides new and important contributions to facilitate and progress plant breeding. For phenotyping approaches plant behaviour in the field is an important reference that always has to be taken in account.. In this context, as part of the agrocluster, Forschungszentrum Jülich has been cooperating closely with the University of Bonn and the other partners in the Bioeconomy Science Center for several years.

“DPPN extends the dimensions in all these research areas. For the very first time, we will build up a portfolio of methods to measure the most important structural and functional properties of plants systematically,” says Ulrich Schurr, summarizing the approach. “This allows us to identify the mechanisms of plants adapting to any type of environmental stress. Revealing these mechanisms is the key to provide a sustainable plant production in the future. At the same time, new types of large automated facilities are being developed and constructed where large numbers of plants can be tested for relevant properties. Field- research also benefits from airborne devices with different properties, sensors, and cameras.”

Forschungszentrum Jülich will make a major contribution to the development of these platforms and will also foster their utilization together with researchers from Germany, Europe, and throughout the world. Therefore, DPPN and its infrastructure will turn out to essentially supplement sustainable bioeconomy.

DPPN node IPK Gatersleben

“IPK Gatersleben is globally one of the most reputed crop research institutes, well known beyond the boundaries of Germany. By participating in the German Plant Phenotyping Network and with the support of the federal state of Saxony-Anhalt, the institute will further establish its key-role in development and utilization of innovative plant research technologies. Prof. Birgitta Wolf, Minister of Sciences and Economic Affairs of Saxony-Anhalt: “The participation in DPPN will strengthen the competitiveness and recognition of our plant research and will find resonance over the world.”

Due to the increasing significance of plant phenotyping as a major research task of the IPK Gatersleben, the institute started to establish platforms for molecular, biochemical, and cytological tests some years ago to complement the broad range of technologies already available for genotyping. For example, the first facility for the automated measurement of plant properties in greenhouses was constructed about five years ago. Today, three facilities are able to record growth parameters and other properties of cereals (barley, wheat, maize) and small plants such as Arabidopsis thaliana using imaging and analysis techniques. With the establishment of these technologies IPK Gatersleben started cooperation within networks in agricultural and food science such as of the University of Bonn and Forschungszentrum Jülich and within the European Plant Phenotyping Network (EPPN). For about ten years, the institute has been able to perform high-throughput studies on the resistance or sensitivity of plants to fungal cereal pathogens, such as powdery mildew. Automatic microscopes have been developed that can identify affected areas of leaves using a software specifically developed for this purpose. In addition, nuclear-magnetic-resonance techniques for the in-vivo determination of plant metabolites have been established. This preliminary work will be an asset for the contribution of the IPK Gatersleben to DPPN.

Prof. Thomas Altmann, DPPN director at IPK: “The implementation of new DNA sequencing technologies was the basis of success in genotyping in the last years. In order to utilize these data, the correspondence of genotype and phenotype must be revealed and examined in detail. This requires new infrastructures and methods such as those we plan to develop and establish as part of the German Plant Phenotyping Network.”

It is unlikely that the group of researchers headed by Altmann will run out of subjects for their investigations, since the IPK Gatersleben hosts a the comprehensive, national ex situ genetic sequence database for agricultural and horticultural plants with about 145,000 different seed samples that represent a wide range of natural genetic diversity. In addition to conserving and distributing the seeds, which are kept in cold storage, a major task in the future will be the determination of properties of these plants, as well as the identification of the underlying genetic properties responsible for these diversities. “This is what is needed, to provide plant breeders all the information that is necessary to improve their varieties, for example in terms of yield, resistance, or adaptability to changing environmental conditions. Prof. Andreas Graner, the managing director of IPK Gatersleben and head of the Genebank department: We hope that participation in the German Plant Phenotyping Network will provide valuable new techniques that will help us to reach this objective.

DPPN node Helmholtz Zentrum München

The Institute of Biochemical Plant Pathology (BIOP) at Helmholtz Zentrum München focuses on the investigation of molecular mechanisms of plants in order to adapt to particular environmental surroundings. Research at the institute aims to develop sustainable strategies for the cultivation and for utilization of plants and to protect natural resources. The interdisciplinary cooperation of plant and agricultural scientists as well as microbiologists generates new concepts and technologies to understand the fundamental mechanisms of plant interaction with environment.”
The institute contributes substantially to proceedings in plant phenotyping research by describing the genetic and biochemical processes which determine growth, physiological state, and resistance of plants. Plants respond to biotic and abiotic factors in their environment via a perception-reaction signalling-cascade that is pre-determined by their genetic configuration. To reveal and to characterize these mechanisms, i.e. the signalling pathways with its reactions and metabolites is the challenge for scientists at BIOP in general. As a partner in the European Plant Phenotyping Network (EPPN) and now also in DPPN, BIOP will contribute its expertise in the fields of environmental simulation and identification of adaptation mechanisms on an national and international level. Furthermore, the department Environmental Simulation Facilities headed by Prof. Schnitzler (embedded in BIOP) has available simulation facilities with excellent technical equipment for creating a variety of reproducible real-life environmental conditions. Therefore, scientists are able to investigate the effects of environmental parameters such as UV radiation, water availability, composition of minerals in the soil, and also the impact of pests, on the entire ecosystem at any given experimental conditions. Prof. Durner, director of the BIOP: “We hope that our progress will support sustainability in agriculture and biotechnological plant utilization by extending the potential of plants that can contribute to improvements in human health and securement of global food supply.