Green life sciences at Amsterdam Science Park

Green life forms are essential to human existence. Plants, algae and microbes are the building blocks of the earth’s biosystem and have always been the subject of research and enquiry. As interdisciplinarity in science has become more common, botany – the study of green life forms – has expanded and transformed into green life sciences. Amsterdam Science Park is home both to academic researchers and to businesses who are expanding the frontiers of green life sciences – and putting it to work.

Fundamental and applied research and development

Green life sciences (GLS) has a number of sub-disciplines, including the forms, functions, genetics, ecology and evolution of green life forms. It combines fundamental and applied molecular biology, chemical ecology, eco-genomics, biotechnology, plant breeding, phytopathology, pest control and cell and population biology. Research in GLS aims to understand at the molecular level how plants deal with constraints and threats, how they interact with insects, microbes and other organisms and how they have diversified and evolved.

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Tackling the biggest problems

Advances in green life sciences offer the opportunity to tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems, in particular food security and climate change. Resilient crops, reduced emissions, more sustainable agriculture and horticulture are all made possible. Medical research also benefits from GLS, as innovations in genome sequencing enable better understanding of drug resistance and zoonotic diseases. New discoveries are being made every day by companies and researchers at Amsterdam Science Park. Some of those innovators are:

  • Amsterdam Green Campus, a network organisation of educational institutes developing effective and sustainable solutions for agriculture.
  • Researchers at CWI, the national institute for mathematics and computer science, are investigating phylogenetic networks in fungi and viruses such as SARS and COVID-19.
  • UvA’s soft matter research cluster is researching how liquids such as sprayed pesticides can be altered to reduce the pollution of soil and water.
  • GreenA is an R&D-focused company developing new pesticide products and application techniques.
  • The MAD is the UvA’s genomics service and support provider, a non-profit lab offering genomic and transcriptomic expertise and services to both companies and researchers.
  • The New Fork advises companies in the agrifood sector on using technologies such as blockchain to make food supply chains safer and more efficient.
  • SolarFoil uses photonics and nanomaterials to make a foil for use in greenhouses. The foil can manipulate the sunlight spectrum to optimise crop growth and increase yields.
  • UvA’s Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences is researching how chemical signals released by plants and plant evolution can contribute to pest-resistant and resilient crops.

Amsterdam Green Campus: putting green life science to work

Amsterdam Green Campus is a network organisation of five educational institutions at university, vocational and higher professional levels. It aims to help farmers find effective and sustainable solutions to the problems they face. The project tackles “the entire chain, from idea to marketing and production,” says director Niek Persoon. “With the goals of responsible land use, safe food production and sustainability, we take a cyclical approach from land, from arable farming and greenhouse horticulture, to the consumer and even the processing of the residual products.”

Current projects on the Amsterdam Green Campus include research into growing broad beans (also known as faba beans) in the Netherlands as a sustainable alternative to imported soy beans. Another project is piloting a process that transforms the waste flow from sauerkraut production into an enriched powder containing vitamin B12, flavourings and preservatives. This can then be used in the manufacture of vegetarian food products. There is no shortage of demand from commercial partners for the work of the campus, according to Persoon: “People know where to find us.” And he’s a firm believer in the need for close collaboration between researchers and business. “There is a misconception that innovation only comes about through smart minds. At the end of the day, it’s about practical implementation: just do it.”

How scent can help develop pest-resistant crops

Michel Haring of the UvA’s Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences (SILS) is leading research into how and why plants produce certain volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Chemical signals such as scent are the means by which plants ‘communicate’ with their environment and – something that’s of particular interest to researchers – with insects. An example where this is useful is tomatoes: not only a commercially important crop internationally, but also a plant that has many natural enemies. Plants react to insects by emitting certain odours. Tracking the genetic composition of those odours means it is ultimately possible to breed a cultivated tomato that is resistant to a particular insect.

Haring believes SILS is the only place in the Netherlands doing this kind of advanced research, saying: “We are one of the few who are trying to unravel the language of plants.”

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