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High-tech greenhouse for scientific research and development built at Maastricht University

Maastricht University has built a new research greenhouse at Brightlands Campus Greenport Venlo. Starting on September 1, research will be conducted in this high-tech greenhouse on the agriculture and horticulture of the future: from new cultivation techniques and the development of plants to the optimization of healthy nutrients in crops.

The new research greenhouse is part of the Brightlands Future Farming Institute, a Maastricht University knowledge institute. This institute's objective is to contribute to the technological and societal challenges in the agrifood sector through research, innovation and knowledge development.

According to Prof. Dr. Wim Vriezen, Professor of Plant Functional Genomics and affiliated with the Brightlands Future Farming Institute, one of the major challenges we face today is finding solutions that will enable us to feed the world's population in 2050 in a healthy, safe and sustainable way. "North Limburg has traditionally been a large and important region when it comes to food production and crop improvement. This is what makes it the ideal place to work on the necessary innovations in agriculture and horticulture. The development of new infrastructure such as this new research greenhouse is crucial to achieving this goal."

Customized climate
High-quality greenhouse sections and climate chambers will be built in the 1,600 m2 structure to facilitate research using the latest climate, irrigation and energy technologies. As technical manager at the Brightlands Future Farming Institute, Peter Keunen is actively involved in the development of the new greenhouse. "With a typical greenhouse, you build one large, open space, but the areas in this greenhouse are small and have to be sealed optimally to keep insects or pathogens out or moving from one space to another. Additionally, it has to be possible to create a different climate in each compartment of the greenhouse and you want to be able to facilitate as many crops as possible: for upright crops such as tomatoes you need growing gutters, but other crops such as leaf vegetables do best on growing tables."

Fully gas-free
The greenhouse is completely gas-free and runs on heat pumps. This translates to the supply of low-grade heat, but the use of double glazing and a larger heating surface make it possible to achieve sufficient temperature in the greenhouse, according to Peter. In addition to the ten regular climate-controlled greenhouse sections, six greenhouse areas will be created where the light and temperature can be fully controlled by LEDs via air handling units (AHUs). During the hot months, the heat can be kept out through the installation of an exterior screen above the greenhouse. Peter: "These techniques will be put into practice here in a relatively small greenhouse. However, it's definitely also interesting for larger growers and cultivation technnology, to see how it works and whether this can be applied on a larger scale."

In addition to the climate-controlled greenhouse sections, six rooms will be set up for research using government-approved forms of genetic modification (GM) of plants. According to Wim, this is necessary to gain a better understanding of the functions of genes: "If you know which genes are involved in a certain process, you can look specifically for natural genetic variation in the genes involved in that process. You can then use this knowledge to improve crops without the need for genetic modification."

"These rooms are fully insulated and subjected to underpressure. This means the air pressure is slightly lower than outside the compartments, so air is always forced inwards. This prevents microorganisms from escaping through the air to the outside. The greenhouse also doesn't have vents; after all, you don't want insects flying in and bringing GM pollen outside either. You need more cooling than heat in these spaces. We can use the heat that's left over as a residual product to heat the rest of the greenhouse," Peter says.

Research group
Wim has spent the past few months setting up the research group for the work in the greenhouse. "The development of the greenhouse had already started before our research team was complete. I started on September 1 last year, and this summer, two assistant professors specializing in gene editing (CRISPR-Cas) and bioinformatics will join us, bringing us to full capacity in terms of research.

The new research group in Venlo will work intensively with the Radboud Institute for Biological and Environmental Sciences in Nijmegen. "By combining our expertise in crop biotechnology, plant genomics and engineering, we are able to take full advantage of the knowledge available at both universities. We want to launch four doctoral research projects together, starting with a study of leguminous crops such as peas and beans. These protein-rich crops can serve as a sustainable alternative to the soy we now import from South America for animal feed. We want to study how to extract protein from those different crops, learn how much and what kind of protein is in which crops, and whether we can develop seeds with both better yields and better protein properties through crop improvement."


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