Prof. Dr. Gabi Krczal: Basic research and services in a wide range of fields of plant biotechnology

Plant biotechnology is a key technology of the 21st century and will play an increasingly important role in overcoming the global challenges in the fields of nutrition, renewable raw materials, energy, health and the environment. Plant biotechnology covers the development, optimisation and use of biotechnological processes for innovation and the increase in efficiency of plant production. It is also opening up new opportunities for improved sustainability in production.

Until late in the twentieth century, plant breeding used conventional methods like classic cross breeding and classical mutagenesis supported by conventional integrated plant protection with a controlled input of fertiliser and pesticides. This strategy was for a long period successful, the quickly growing world population and their demands, however push this kind of farming to its limits. Arable land being scarce as well as natural resources like water, the growing world population, , however needs increasing yields. Satisfying the growing need for food in 2050 would require an annual production increase of 2.4 %; however, we are far from this. Growthrates of 1.6 %, 1 %, 0.9 % and 1.3 % in main food crops such as maize, rice, wheat and soya are far below this rate. In such cases, the use of modern breeding techniques can help attaining breeding targets more quickly, such as resistance to biotic and abiotic stress and improved efficiency in the use of growth factors, starting with Smart Breeding (Selection with Markers and Advanced Reproductive Technologies) – the acceleration of conventional cultivation by the use of molecular markers for detecting cultivation-related characteristics – through to the “New Breeding” technologies with CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palin­dromic Repeats)/Cas9 as the most popular examples, which enable targeted changes in the DNA (genome editing). A further area of work is the development of plants as production sources of pharmaceutically useful substances.

The state of Rhineland-Palatinate decided early on to use and actively promote the opportunities offered by modern biotechnology, especially in the field of small crops (wine, fruit and vegetables). The state government therefore established the Centrum Grüne Gentechnik (Green Genetic Technology Centre, or CGG) in 1996, at that time with the mandate of giving farmers access to new cultivation methods – in this case gene transfer – and jointly evaluating their use for the enterprise’s own species improvement.  RLP AgroScience GmbH was formed in 2004 as part of the agricultural administrative reform. It is a non-profitmaking state research institution in which the CGG was integrated as a division and named  AlPlanta Institute for Plant Research. The mandate remained similar: to conduct research and development in the field of plant biotechnology and to support companies in Rhineland-Palatinate to achieve higher added value with the help of modern biotechnological methods. AlPlanta regards itself as a mediator between basic research, industrial development and private-sector implementation, it has experience with market requirements and carries out numerous cooperative projects with partners in the life sciences industry and the agricultural sector.

The Institute works in three main areas of research – host-pathogen interaction, breeding tools and gene regulation. The first two research foci are mainly concerned with applied research projects which take in­­cen­­tives from everyday practice for example in horticulture and viticulture, and develop management strategies for their current problems. For example, in close cooperation with farmers and advisors, a comprehensive management strategy for the complex phytoplasma diseases in pome fruits and stone fruit were developed. This comprised the cultivation of phytoplasma-tolerant material for fruit-growing, which is now being tested nation-wide in field trials and will be made available to producers in Rhineland-Palatinate in the medium term, as well as the identification and investigation of insects that transmit these pathogens (psyllids), including the development of a key for identifying these in­sects, especially for fruit-growing advisors. In addition, innovative, environmentally friendly control methods are being investigated, such as the use of bacterial and fungal endosymbionts, which are in­tended to keep the phytoplasmas “in check”.

Similar strategies are being pursued for pests in viticulture. These are mainly fungal pests whose detection and management is a difficult challenge The idea for an innovative plant protection concept was developed in intensive cooperation with a medium-sized company: functional protective layers, which were originally developed for other areas of technology, were further developed for application in plant protection, so that resulting barrier layers protect plants from pests without any toxic effects. This technology is especially of interest for viticulture, which utilises only 5 % of all cultivated land in the EU but needs 70 % of all fungicides.

Within the research focus of gene regulation,  AlPlanta especially conducts basic research projects that deal with mechanisms for regulating gene activities under biotic and abiotic stress. Basic and applied research are inseparable: without the extension of fundamental scientific findings and developments, no specialised research can take place in a commercially oriented environment. Knowl­­edge gained from and results of basic research are an essential prerequisite for conducting applied re­search. This can also be seen in this focus of re­­search: the results of this basic research have now produced opportunities for replacing chemical pesticides with “natural agents” – in this case small RNA molecules.

In addition, AlPlanta is a member of various German and international boards and advisory committees. Further­more, it is actively involved in bachelor’s and master’s degree courses at the universities of applied science in Bingen and Mannheim. It holds lectures and offers intern­­ships for students at the universities of Heidelberg and Hohenheim and is also involved in training doctoral students at these universities.

Prof. Dr. Gabi Krczal
The author, born 1959, studied biology and chemistry at the University Heidelberg where she also received her doctorate. She managed the Integrated Plant Protection department from 1988 to 1998 and then the Virology Department of the State Institute of Plant Cultivation and Plant Protection in Mainz until 1997. She headed the Centrum Grüne Gentechnik” (Centre GG) at the State Teaching and Research Institute in Neustadt an der Weinstrasse from 1997 to 2004 and has been managing director of RLP AgroScience GmbH (also located in Neustadt an der Weinstraße) since 2005. She was awarded an honorary professorship at the Mannheim University of Applied Sciences in 2010.