Within my group we aim to understand the physiology of individual plants and crops while scaling up basic, physiological processes from sub-plant level to crop level in man-managed systems, using a combination of experimentation and modelling.
My primary interest is in the interactions between plants in a crop. Plants compete for resources such as light, nutrient and water. Plants also sense each other through all sorts of signals, and respond to each other's presence by adapting their growth and development.
These kinds of plant-plant interactions are important determinants of crop productivity. Only if the plants that make up the crop play well together, resources can be used efficiently to produce biomass and yield.
Within the domain of computational crop ecophysiology, we try to capture these interactions between plants in computer simulation models. We use these digital plants to test how plant interactions result in a certain crop performance, and how this could be influenced by changing crop management, or altering the spatial pattern at which the plants are growing. Digital plants even allow to test plant traits or even entire plants that do not exist in reality yet.
I aim to use this knowledge to aid the development of better functioning crops that are efficient in the use of resources. I work on field and horticultural crop species, ranging from monoculture and mixed-species systems with cereals and legumes, to tropical perennial tree crops, to highly managed greenhouse systems.
To create these digital plants, I use the principles of so-called functional-structural plant (FSP) models. The essence of FSP models is the simulation of the relationship between plant functioning and plant structure in 3D, with explicit feedback between plant growth and development on the one hand and environmental drivers on the other. This way, crop vegetation performance can be simulated, emerging from the underlying processes related to interaction between plants.
I teach in BSc, MSc, and postgraduate courses in the domains of plant science, crop ecology and physiology, mixed cropping and plant modelling.
Links to information and videos on the digital-twins project 'Virtual Tomato Crops':
Photo: Sarah Vlekke