Cutting-edge plant research lab NPEC opens its doors in Utrecht

Using conveyor belts, robotic arms, cameras, and scanners the NPEC-module Helios
Using conveyor belts, robotic arms, cameras, and scanners the NPEC-module Helios enables fully automated plant research.

Equipped with advanced robotics, hyperspectral imaging, laser scanners, climate chambers, and other installations, the Netherlands Plant Eco-phenotyping Centre (NPEC) opens its doors today in Utrecht. Researchers at this lab can automatically monitor the growth and development of thousands of plants. Simultaneously, they can precisely map the impact of pathogens, beneficial microorganisms, and other factors such as rising temperatures or prolonged drought.

NPEC is a collaboration between Utrecht University and Wageningen University & Research, with two locations. The location at Utrecht Science Park, opening today, allows researchers to study thousands of plants in extreme detail. After years of preparations and construction, Utrecht researchers have gradually started up the facilities at the NPEC lab over the past months.

Research in this lab will drive the development of stronger crops. These could prove to be more resilient to climate extremes or require fewer pesticides as a result of improved interactions with beneficial microorganisms.

With all this state-of-the-art technology, plant biologists can make significant steps in their research that would be much harder to make elsewhere

Dr. Roeland Berendsen

Plant-Microbe Interactions

"The NPEC facility provides unprecedented opportunities to fundamentally understand how plants respond to their environment," says biologist Roeland Berendsen, the coordinator overseeing the development of NPEC in Utrecht. "With all this state-of-the-art technology, plant biologists can make significant steps in their research that would be much harder to make elsewhere. I am very proud that we have realized this and look forward to scientific discoveries that will be made in NPEC."

Plants on the conveyor belt

The new NPEC facility in Utrecht consists of three major installations, or modules. One module focuses on the interaction between plants and microbes, featuring systems with robotic arms, conveyors belts, high-tech camera systems, and a 3D laser scanner. With these tools, scientists can automatically monitor the growth and development of over a thousand plants, and observe how microorganisms colonize, interact with and shape the plants. The cameras and scanner reveal many details that were previously invisible.

Moreover, the automation allows researchers to conduct much larger experiments. Experimental processes are automated, eliminating the need for human intervention. This improves the consistency and quality of experiments.

Custom miniature ecosystems

With the Ecotron module, researchers can create miniature versions of natural ecosystems and agricultural systems for study. The Ecotron comprises 36 giant cylinders where conditions can be fully controlled and monitored. Biologists can mimic the complexity of the real world, studying processes both above and below ground.

In each of the 36 cylinders, researchers can create their own mini-ecosystem tailored to their research questions. They decide which plant species to combine, the type of soil to use, and even which microorganisms and animals, such as nematodes and worms, to include. Simultaneously, researchers precisely control the dynamics temperature and humidity, decide on the amount of daylight the plants receive, and choose when and how much it ’rains’ within the unit.

Extremely stable cultivation rooms

Using the third module, biologists can answer the question how plants respond to climate change or other changing conditions in their environment. Small fluctuations in temperature, humidity, or light can have a significant impact. To investigate precisely how temperature or light influences plants, scientists want to grow their experimental plants in chambers where both factors are extreme and precisely controlled.

Achieving the right temperature or light in a space may sound simple, but it requires exceptionally high-quality equipment, which was specially developed for NPEC. With this equipment at their disposal, researchers can now study how plants respond to environmental factors in 15 extremely regulated rooms.