Preparing for climate change with sensor technology

The summer of 2022 made it clear once again: agriculture needs plants that are adapted to climate change. To help breeders select suitable varieties, Fraunhofer IIS develops high-performance optical and X-ray systems. Since 2022, these technologies have been further refined in the recently established Fraunhofer Center for Biogenic Value Creation and Smart Farming. 

No less a figure than Bavaria’s Minister of Economic Affairs, Hubert Aiwanger, came to the kickoff meeting of the Fraunhofer Center for Biogenic Value Creation and Smart Farming in July 2022. His presence underscored the importance of the research network that is being established in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania and Bavaria. Its objective is to develop innovative technologies for sustainable agriculture – from seeds to food processing technology to refined products.

In a Bavarian subproject, the Development Center X-ray Technology EZRT of Fraunhofer IIS starts with the seed. More specifically, with the process of breeding crops adapted to climate change. The new varieties have to cope with heat and drought, while also requiring as little fertilizer as possible and ideally no more pesticides. “People have been selecting crops based on external characteristics for thousands of years,” explains Dr. Stefan Gerth, Head of Department at Fraunhofer EZRT. “We’re developing technologies to objectively and reproducibly measure these traits and use the data to optimize breeding.” The scientists consider factors such as leaf size, leaf position, root network and yield. Together, these characteristics determine the phenotype, i.e. the external appearance of a plant. 

Röntgenlicht ermöglicht den Blick in die Erde: Kartoffelknollen in fortgeschrittener Wachstumsphase
© Fraunhofer IIS, Paul Pulkert
Röntgenlicht ermöglicht den Blick in die Erde: Kartoffelknollen in fortgeschrittener Wachstumsphase
Visualisierung ausgewaschener Wurzelstrukturen einer Maispflanze (optische Aufnahme)
© Fraunhofer IIS, Paul Pulkert
Visualisierung ausgewaschener Wurzelstrukturen einer Maispflanze (optische Aufnahme)
Die Ergebnisse der Phänotypisierung unterstützen Züchter bei der Selektion von Nutzpflanzen, die an den Klimawandel angepasst sind.
© Fraunhofer IIS, Franziska Köhler

Watching potatoes grow – without digging them up 

When Dr. Gerth began X-raying potatoes ten years ago, he was one of the pioneers in the virtually unexplored field of nondestructive phenotyping of underground plant parts. Back then, he was studying potatoes suffering from heat stress. He wanted to track their growth without digging them up, so he cultivated the potatoes in flowerpots and constructed a computed tomography device with his team to X-ray the plants. “Regular X-rays allowed us to observe exactly how tuber formation is affected by heat and drought,” Gerth says. 

With this research, he laid the foundation for the construction of a special X-ray chamber for crops; this one-of-a-kind equipment exists only at Fraunhofer EZRT in Fürth. Pots of crops are arranged in neat rows on the narrow conveyor belt in front of the X-ray machine. The assembly line positions the plants one after the other in the device. After just five minutes, it’s the next plant’s turn. “With this system, we can even record the delicate root architecture of wheat and observe how the plants react to heat or drought stress,” Gerth explains. “Our device is the most modern and powerful X-ray system for underground plant parts.” 

In collaboration with Fraunhofer EZRT, Dutch company Pheno-Key has developed a robust CT scanner for plant cultivation. Its customers also include big seed breeding companies, which have tens of thousands of plants in their greenhouses that need to be assessed. The CT images have enormously high resolution and measure some 40 gigabytes. To make these data volumes manageable for customers, algorithms analyze the data sets automatically and zero in on the important data. 

New laboratory cabin for plant phenotyping

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Stefan  Gerth

Contact Press / Media

Dr. Stefan Gerth

Head of Department

Fraunhofer IIS
Flugplatzstraße 75
90768 Fürth, Germany

Phone +49 911 58061-7658