KU Leuven: New KU Leuven Institute researches plants from molecule to ecosystem

In the KU Leuven Plant Institute (LPI), scientists from different disciplines are jointly looking for solutions to the challenges of tomorrow. By joining forces, they bring plant research from the test tube to the field and society.

The world population and consumption continue to grow, so our agriculture will have to yield significantly more to meet the increasing demand for food and plant products. At the same time, the total agricultural area must be reduced to make way for more nature and new rules and ambitions are restricting the use of fertilizers and pesticides, among other things. In addition, we must arm ourselves against climate change and make our agriculture and ecosystems more robust. These are just a few of the many societal challenges that the plant researchers in the LPI will be tackling, explains director Filip Rolland.

Unique because of a broad approach
Most members of the new KU Leuven Institute are affiliated with the Departments of Biosystems, Biology, Microbial and Molecular Systems, and Earth and Environmental Sciences.

“As an Institute, we therefore bring together a great deal of expertise,” continues Professor Rolland. “We are talking about fundamental cell biological research in the lab, experiments in greenhouses or in the field for the development of concrete applications to improve food production, research into diversity and nature conservation or the effects of urban greening, and studying ecosystems. with drones and satellite images. The aim is to eventually explore the socio-economic, ethical, regulatory, medical and cultural aspects of plants and their various applications within the Institute with colleagues from other disciplines. This broad approach makes us unique in Flanders and beyond. ”

Professor Filip Rolland is himself a molecular biologist, which immediately makes the advantage of a KU Leuven Institute for his research very concrete: “We investigate how plants respond at the cellular level to various stress factors. In the past, our research often stopped at fundamental insights in the lab. Other researchers could then possibly translate these insights into concrete ways of making crops more resilient and productive, for example through classical breeding or genetic engineering, but also by applying the insights to more integrated and sustainable cultivation and ecosystems. “

It is not the case that plant researchers from different disciplines did not find each other in the past: the collaboration was already there, but mainly on an individual basis. Rolland: “From now on we can collaborate much more easily and systematically. As an Institute, we can better streamline the various steps and levels of plant research and thus provide the necessary multidisciplinary answers to important questions and challenges.”

Expertise and infrastructure
In addition to the necessary expertise, KU Leuven also has the infrastructure in-house to conduct top-level plant research. Earlier this year, the Greenhouses in Leuven and Geel were recognized as KU Leuven Core Facility. But much more infrastructure and support is available, Professor Rolland continues. “Just think of the TRANSfarm test farm, the various spin-offs, or the university forest in Hamont-Achel, which is part of a network for long-term ecological research. There is already an enormous wealth of expertise and infrastructure for plant research, and the launch of the KU Leuven Plant Institute makes coordination and collaboration a lot easier. ”