Plants – from the roots to the tip – constitute a highly relevant field of work. Throughout the world, plants are the most important foundation for feeding a constantly growing global population. They are renewable raw materials that are increasingly in demand. Plants are also a source of renewable energy, and thus contribute to the energy mix of the future.
For this reason, the researchers at Jülich are studying plant-related topics in detail, asking the following questions: How do plants grow and how can their yields be optimized sustainably? How can we boost the efficiency with which plants use water, nutrients or light? How does a plant optimize CO2 use, both for higher yields and for using CO2 from power plants? How do plants react to stress resulting from drought or waterlogging, as well as from pathogens? How can the composition be optimized for future requirements for food, raw materials or energy? The Jülich researchers are not seeking the answers to these questions on their own, however, but have joined forces with their partners at the Bioeconomy Science Center to work on breakthroughs in knowledge-based bioeconomy. BSC is a new interdisciplinary network in which Forschungszentrum Jülich, RWTH Aachen University, the University of Bonn and the University of Düsseldorf are pooling their expertise, ranging from sustainable plant production, biotechnology and process technology to economic assessment.
A Look Inside and At the Living Plant
In order to precisely understand processes in living plants, researchers at Jülich are specifically developing new technological methods that allow them to look inside a plant without having to cut it open or dig it out of the ground. Some of these methods – such as magnetic resonance imaging and positron emission tomography – employ principles that are already being used in medicine to gain revolutionary insights. Innovative methods are also able to quantitatively assess properties specific to plants, such as photosynthesis. To this end, researchers are overcoming limits by using suitable methods to study objects ranging from individual cells, entire leaves of plants and even crop land. The results help to shed light on how plant production can be secured in future through adapted plant varieties and modern cultivation methods and how plants can adapt to changed environmental conditions, such as those resulting from climate change, or be adapted to them.
With their ingenious methods, the researchers are able to study the root system and crop plants that grow underground, such as sugar beets or wheat, in their natural environment, and in so doing, gain new insights on the efficiency of nutrient and water use. For these studies, looking at plants and their function in soils plays a major role in order to use nutrients for plant production, without them overfertilizing rivers and lakes or even endangering the groundwater. To this end, Jülich scientists are developing mathematical models that provide valuable services for municipalities' and rural districts' land-use planning..
However, the researchers are also developing new technological solutions in order to improve entire plant production systems. The scientists at Forschungszentrum Jülich have optimized the covering of greenhouses such that light transmission for the part of the spectrum that plants need for photosynthesis increases to up to 97% and the light composition also corresponds more to the light composition available in nature. The effect is that the plants grow more strongly, are more resistant and more productive. However, the researchers are also reducing energy consumption at the same time, using a combination of glass and foil that serves as transparent heat insulation for greenhouses and in so doing, helps save energy.
Renewable raw and useful materials are a further area of innovative approaches. For this area, the defence reaction of agarwood trees is an example of a topic of interest for industry. In response to a fungal infection, the trees produce an incense-like, fragrant resin that then saturates the wood. Industry demand for this special resin is huge, with the price now reaching US$ 10,000 per kilogramme. As a result, the natural stock of agarwood trees is extremely endangered. Jülich scientists are now investigating the molecular principles behind the interaction between the tree and the fungus and the conditions for sustainable agricultural cultivation of agarwood – an example of how molecular biology can make major contributions to sustainability.
Large-scale research on the productivity of algae pursues two objectives: on the one hand, the algae are to function as a source for chemical products and provide energy in the form of biogas or biopetrol. On the other hand, in so doing, the algae consume carbon dioxide, for instance, from power plants and in this way, can be bound into the biomass of the algae in an environmentally compatible manner. Together with RWE and various academic partners, Jülich scientists have established a pilot plant that produces up to 6,000 kilogrammes of algae a year and at the same time, consumes 12,000 kilogrammes of carbon dioxide.
Key Technologies for Tomorrow’s Plants
The interaction of the environment and genes is responsible for the way plants look and function. The way in which genes and dynamic environmental conditions influence the properties of plants is thus a central area of basic and application-oriented research at the Jülich Plant Phenotyping Centre. At the centre, scientists develop key technologies that are equally important for investigating plant properties and for crop breeding.