FZJ: Programme "Changing Earth – sustaining our Future"

      Climate change, species extinction, environmental pollution and geological risks are among the greatest challenges of our time. We investigate our natural resources o with a systemic approach - from the land surface to the oceans even to the remotest polar regions. Only with extended and fundamental knowledge of the earth system, with innovative technologies and with strategic approaches to solutions and recommendations for action for politics it will be possible to built a path to a sustainable future.

      Seven Helmholtz Centres are working together to gain deep insights into the complex interrelationships of processes on our planet. What are the reasons and effects of global environmental change? How can natural resources be used sustainably? How can we better protect ourselves from natural disasters such as droughts, heavy rain, storms, floods and earthquakes? The aim is to develop solutions and strategies on how the world population can adapt to changing environmental conditions and how to cope with global threats such as climate change, but also to investigate their effects not only on the environment, but also on the economy and society.

      The IBG-2 is contributing its expertise in Topic 7 (Sustainable Bioeconomy):

      Topic 7. Sustainable Bioeconomy

      Rising world population and changing eating habits - overexploitation of natural resources such as land, soil, water and nutrients - demand for sustainably produced bio-based raw materials for the chemical, pulp and paper, and construction industries, as well as the growing global demand for bioenergy: these are examples of the major societal challenges to which sustainable bio-economy will contribute.

      The revolutionary developments in the biosciences in recent decades provide the basis for innovative approaches. Essential biological resources of the bioeconomy are plants and microorganisms. Plants must be produced as sustainably as possible and should consume as little water, nutrients and land as possible.

      The key challenge is the optimisation of biological resources for the bioeconomy. Plants with high yields, adapted for use as food or feed, as renewable raw materials or for bioenergy, as well as their integration into agronomic systems in which cycles are closed in order to produce sustainably and intensively, are the aim of our plant science research.

      Plants and plant production play very important roles in a future bioeconomy: They are (i) are central elements of production systems determining inputs like water or nutrients or energy efficiency, (ii) provide renewable biomass for the use as food or feed, as raw materials for chemicals, direct material use or for bioenergy and (iii) are essential elements in production systems to close (nutrient) cycles, which is essential for developing a sustainable bioeconomy. Plant breeding and production are exposed to significant challenges that need to be urgently addressed. With less agricultural land and increasing economic pressures on inputs, due to limited availability of e.g. water and nutrients, sustainable intensification requires plants and production systems with increased productivity per area as well as per unit of input (water, nutrients). The program focusses on supporting breeding as a key factor to develop crops with higher resource use efficiency. This approach is based on unique and innovative concepts and technologies for plant phenotyping. They provide the basis for quantitative understanding of root and shoot performance as well as for screening plant traits for improving resource use efficiency in relevant scenarios of spatial and temporal variation of resources.

      A central limitation for the development of bioeconomy beyond food crops is the competition for land resources. Therefore in addition to contributions to a sustainable intensification of food crop production, the program seeks to develop alternative biomass resources that can be used for non-food purposes. This includes specific crops that can grow on marginal or degraded land with little input and algae as hitherto underdeveloped biomass source with a wide range of potential applications. Here the strategy is to co-develop sustainable ways to enlarge plant production options in parallel with closing nutrient cycles from “wastes” of large scale biomass conversion as nutrient source. However this approach with crops and algae would not be sufficient, if options for utilisation pathways would not be developed in parallel. Thus we apply an integrated optimisation approach to improve crops/ algae, utilise the production systems for closing the nutrient cycles and optimise the utilisation pathways for these alternative biomass sources.

      Plant biomass shall be a resource for a wide range of utilisation routes in a future bioeconomy. These different pathways require different biomass quality to allow maximal efficiency of conversion for chemicals and materials, for the different paths of bioenergy conversion and for the utilisation as food crops. Here the topic focusses on quality parameter of crops for the most abundant polymer structure on earth – the plant cell wall. There is a significant potential to improve the availability of bio-based resources by using cell walls as well as by developing the utilisation potential of the cell wall as a highly diverse and complex matrix for chemicals. With respect to higher value products plants can provide indirect resources for biotechnological routes or can directly produce valuable resources like carotenoids or terpenoids.

      Within the programme significant infrastructures and competences relevant for the national and international research in bioeconomy have been installed or are presently set up. These national platforms will give support to the plant science community in Germany, Europe and globally in the emerging field of plant phenotyping as well as in bioinformatics. Here the program aims to develop infrastructures and interfaces to users to optimise the use of the unique facilities and capabilities at Forschungszentrum Jülich as key technologies for next generation plant sciences for bioeconomy.

      Mechanistic and quantitative understanding of traits determining light, water, nutrient and energy utilization and efficiency is a central element to develop plants that allow sustainable intensification of plant production in agriculture. The environment, in which crops are produced are characterized by a highly dynamic and heterogeneous and thus to a large extend unpredictable 4-dimensional space of resources.

      Plants need to optimize their structures and physiological functions with respect to material and energy consumption for most efficient acquisition. Today still most research about mechanisms of resource use efficiency ignores the fact of this spatial and temporal heterogeneity. In contrast to this traditional approach, which aims at maximizing the potential of plants at optimal conditions, the topic uses its unique infrastructure and experience to quantifying key processes and structures of shoots and roots for identifying novel traits that improve resource use efficiency at relevant, non-optimal conditions.

      Selection of plant genotypes with improved resource use efficiency and their introduction in crop breeding programs of food crops are essential components for sustainable intensification as indicated as key targets of the National Bioeconomy 2030 strategy to achieve higher biomass production in a sustainable manner.