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Plant, Food & Climate

The Science Team Plant, Food & Climate

The major scope of our team is an integrated approach aimed at explaining plant responses to climate change, the optimized growth of high value crops under protected production, and the postharvest physiology and technology of fruits, vegetables, and ornamental plants. In practical terms, our goals are to:

  • Optimize environments for protected growth of crop, ornamental, and medicinal plants
  • Adapt plant cultivation protocols to a changing climate
  • Contribute to plant breeding by identifying genotypes that can thrive in adverse conditions
  • Maintain postharvest quality and shelf life of plants used as food and pharmaceuticals
  • Reduce losses and waste along the modern food supply chain

Plant responses and their genetic ability to acclimate and adapt to different climatic conditions (temperature extremes, carbon dioxide, light, salt, drought, and flooding) are clearly important for plants grown outdoors and in protected environments, such as greenhouses, plastic tunnels, and plant factories. In protected environments, we can select the best genotypes for a specific environment, while also optimizing environmental conditions for those genotypes. The crosstalk between the physiological and molecular regulatory mechanisms in plants and plant products in response to environmental or postharvest changes is one of our focuses. Our optimization of production of high-value crops centers on their growth and nutritional quality, including the production of primary and secondary metabolites that have sensory, health-promoting, and antimicrobial properties.

We have a specific emphasis on plant phenotyping by several novel approaches, including the use of photosynthesis, stomatal conductance, and chlorophyll fluorescence, the optimization of environments for growth of aboveground plant parts (light intensity and spectrum, CO2 concentration, temperature) and the rhizosphere (organic nutrition, hydroponics, aeroponics), and the improvement of postharvest handling (e.g., hot water treatments, UV treatment, processing, packaging, and coating) and storage (e.g., temperature, relative humidity, O2, CO2, ethylene). Understanding the mechanisms by which plants and fresh produce adapt to or cope with different environmental factors and multiple stresses by altering growth and metabolism are key areas of the research carried out by our team. For example, we investigate the role of phytohormones in adaptive processes and the regulation of plant metabolites (e.g., phenolics, polyacetylenes, and volatile compounds) in response to abiotic stress. We also explore ways to prolong the shelf life of fresh produce without compromising product quality as produce moves along supply chains in our efforts to reduce food losses and waste using state-of-the-art technological solutions.

Research facilities

 

The science team has ultramodern greenhouses, climate chambers (with different light spectra produced by LED lights), and storage rooms with controlled conditions that allow simulation of different environmental and postharvest storage conditions. The group possesses equipment and laboratories for analysis of primary and secondary metabolites (IE, HPLC-DAD, GS-MS, GC-FID), plant hormones (e.g., photo-acoustic ethylene detection), and fruit and vegetable quality. Climate controlled conditions allow plant growth under a wide range of light intensities and spectra and different O2, CO2, and relative humidity levels. Different types of hydroponics systems optimize plant nutrition while allowing investigation of root exudates. Portable equipment has been developed to capture and analyze ethylene and volatile organic compounds at any point in the supply chain.