Zero-waste plants

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Zero-waste plants

Published on
July 1, 2019

A large proportion of crops are discarded at harvest and this includes plant organs containing proteins, fats, fibres and other valuable plant components,. Luisa Trindade says this needs to change. “The world needs plants that can be used fully, to the last molecule.”

“Crop plants as we know them are not developed to be fully used,” explains Luisa Trindade, professor holding a personal chair in Plant Breeding. “Take as an examples the stems of tomato plants,  which contain all kinds of useful building blocks. In theory, you could use the fibres in tomato stems as a raw material for jeans, but because of the way they are built into the plant it is not feasible to extract them economically. Tomato plants have been breed to produce beautiful and tasty tomatoes, but the rest of the plant has never interested breeders.”

Miscanthus

Trindade wants to increase the value of crop residues. She thinks it is crucial to decide in advance exactly what you intend to do with the different plant components. She is currently focussing her research on fibre crops, including miscanthus. This grass serves as a raw material for all kinds of products. For example, cellulose, a major components of its biomass cane be used to make paper and bioplastics, while whole fibres can be used as a lightweight filler in concrete. “We want to breed varieties of excellent biomass quality  for a range of applications,” says Trindade. “We also want these varieties to be robust, produce high yields in various environments.”

Identifying suitable gene combinations

Luisa Trindade’s research group has developed eight potential new hybrid varieties of miscanthus. These hybrids have been planted in ten different locations in Europe. ‘It may be that one hybrid does very well in the Netherlands, while another performs better in Russia. Or one breed might prove to do well everywhere. The latter is what we are interested in. At Plant Breeding genetic markers for different traits have been developed for different traits. We want to improve the usefulness of the crops step by step, not only on agricultural land, but also on marginal land .’

Large-scale CO2 capture

Miscanthus has a number of interesting properties. Among them are the high biomass yields produced by this species, and consequently high CO2 capture and the fact that it it  promotes biodiversity, as animals like to use the crop as a place to shelter. Because miscanthus is a perennial plant,  CO2 and other nutrients are stored in the soil for longer period, promoting soil quality.

Miscanthus biomass is mostly lignocellulose, meaning that breeding focus on the improvement of lignocellulose composition. If you take a tomato plant that is more complex as the plant has different organs with great differences in their composition, Trindade acknowledges: “As a breeder, my goal is to be able to use all of the plant. I believe that in the future we will develop   tomato varieties where the total biomass will be used for food and non- food purposes, and who know we will develop varieties with edible stems and leaves.”

At a time when the world population is growing exponentially and the demand for food is increasing, Trindade believes we need to make the most out of biomass. This will require alternative crops, says the professor: ”this will comprise the development of new crops and the re-design of  existing crops. But they will all be plants that we can use right down to the last fibre or molecule of protein.”