Scientists of KIT led by Prof. Peter Nick are fighting against plant extinction. This is not only interesting for conservationists: His ideas have an impact on industries ranging from pharmaceuticals to viticulture.
It is not exactly known how many plant species die out on earth every year. Although there are studies, such as the "Red List" of the World Conservation Union, the figures fluctuate and it is not entirely clear how many species exist on earth at all. What is certain, however, is that the number of extinct plants is far higher than the number of newly discovered plants. Scientists also agree that species extinction in itself is not a threat – it is an evolutionary process, completely normal in the course of the earth's history. What is not normal, however, is the rate at which species are disappearing. "Agriculture, greenhouse gases, drought, deforestation, salinization, overbreeding, pesticides and pests – there are many reasons why the extinction of many plants is happening much faster today than it naturally would," says Peter Nick.
The KIT plant cell expert is passionate about preserving natural diversity, also called biodiversity, and using it economically: "Many species even die before they are discovered. Many shrug their shoulders – w hat does that have to do with me? But if we want to leave a livable world for our grandchildren, we need plants that are robust, undemanding and provide new raw materials. How are we going to breed these plants if we have previously eradicated the genes that can do that?"
At KIT, Ph. D. Nick is working with scientists from other disciplines on several fronts. For example, his team is trying to link conservation, species rescue in botanical gardens and a gene bank of wild and cultivated species, as well as technological processes to extract new products from plant cells. Together with specialists in microstructure engineering from KIT, he developed, for example, a microreactor that enables industrial drug development from cells, explores ways to increase the resistance of crops, crosses grapevines with old wild varieties to obtain entirely new disease-resistant vines and increases the stress resistance of rice.
Some of these developments are being used industrially: In a research project, scientists from KIT combine their expertise with the technological know-how of Phyton Biotech GmbH, the largest producer of pharmaceutical ingredients with plant cells. With the help of a microfluidic bioreactor consisting of interconnected modules, the scientists are technically mimicking complex plant tissue in order to obtain active ingredients against Cancer or Alzheimer's disease more effectively and more cheaply than before. For Peter Nick, this is just one of many possible applications: "Since the early 1990s at the latest, it is well known that biodiversity also has tangible economic significance. Nevertheless, undiscovered effects of plant cells still hold unexpected potential for many areas of our lives. This offers industrial companies with courage and technological know-how opportunities for new products and markets."
Preserving biodiversity is, first of all a value in itself. Second, it secures our livelihoods. By researching it, we are generating new avenues for industries such as pharmaceuticals, medicine and food technology.
PLANT CELLS ON HIGH-TECH PATHWAYS
One of Prof. Nick's technologies deals with the optimization of industrial processes for metabolite production. To this end, he and colleagues from the Institute of Microstructure Technology have developed a novel microfluidic system that technically mimics complex plant tissue.
Microfluidic systems and structures are of interest for many technical application areas, for example in medical technology and biotechnology. However, they are still rarely used for the cultivation of plant cells. Yet there is a great deal of potential here for the production and extraction of secondary metabolites. Many of these substances, which can only be produced from plants, can be used for medicines, but so far they can hardly be produced synthetically.
Scientists of the Botanical Institute and the Institute of Microstructure Technology at KIT have developed a microfluidic reactor that can be used to develop pharmaceutically active ingredients via plant cell fermentation. Possible fields of application are the production of active substances against diseases, but also against pests. With the aid of a microfluidic bioreactor consisting of interconnected polymer-based modules, the scientists are technically mimicking complex plant tissue. Each individual module processes a cell type or a specific production step. The modules are connected to each other via channels, so that the resultant substances, including metabolic products of one cell type, can be transferred to the next module for further processing without the different cell types mixing. The target substance can finally be extracted from the flow-through.
In a cooperation with the industrial partner Phyton, part of the technology is being tested for process optimization.
"Plant biodiversity is valuable, and not only in a figurative sense, but in a very tangible way," says Prof. Nick. In several projects, he and his team at the KIT Botanical Institute use species diversity to develop concrete applications. The focus is on useful plants such as rice and wine and their wild relatives, but also on plants that are used medicinally. Within the framework of cooperations with industrial partners, he provides his knowledge and the tools. These include "genetic barcoding," authentication using gene markers. In combination with classical authentication, such as microscopic analysis, the origin and authenticity of various plants can be verified.
The team uses the extensive collection of well-characterized and verified reference plants from the Botanical Garden for this purpose. In addition to research and development collaborations, the scientists are also investigating services on a commercial basis, such as for companies that trade in or process plant products.
Drought, soil salinization and alkalinization are on the rise, creating immense societal problems. To provide sufficient food for the world's growing population, new healthy and resistant crops are needed for cultivation in climatically challenging areas. Prof. Nick's team has demonstrated that plants can respond intelligently to stress factors. Plants are apparently capable of analyzing even complex environmental situations and responding flexibly and appropriately. How can this knowledge be used in agriculture in the future?
Osmotic stress GRAPES PROJ
Grapevines are highly susceptible to pathogens, which entails great effort in plant protection. For example, about 70 percent of fungicide production is due to grapevine cultivation. In the Botanical Garden of KIT, the team has cultivated the almost extinct European wild grapevine. It is more resistant to diseases such as downy mildew. New cultivars can thus reduce the use of pesticides.
Our wild grape project (Botanical Institute)
Globalization is constantly flooding new products onto the European market, many of them plant-based. Novel foods and functional foods place ever-increasing demands on consumer protection and quality control. It is often very difficult to recognize and classify these mostly exotic products. However, the consumer needs assurance that what is inside is what is on the label. The institute has developed an integrated approach to increase consumer protection for trendy plants and the commercial products made from them.
Molecular authentication (Botanical Institute)
Traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) is becoming more common worldwide and is based on about 1500 plants, some of which are rare. Studies show that about a quarter of the preparations are stretched or even replaced by other plants. Best case: such surrogate products are ineffective. Worst case: if they are confused with toxic plants, the consequences can be fatal. Together with the company Phytocomm, Prof. Nick is looking for ways to create higher consumer safety. Thus, it is already possible to clarify a safe preparation within a few hours.
The "real" goji berry (Botanical Institute)
In the course of gluten-free, vegetarian and vegan diets, amaranth is becoming more and more popular. At present, however, amaranth is only cultivated on a very small scale in Germany; the trade usually obtains larger batches from Latin America. Quality and identity of the material are variable and often undefined. At KIT, more than 80 amaranth genotypes have been investigated and characterized with regard to their cultivation properties. New varieties are just about to be bred from the most suitable genotypes.
Amaranth as Functional Food (Botanical Institute)