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."
"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.