From research in plant genetics to virus immunity in cultivated tomatoes

Michel Haring’s research group utilizes molecular and genetic research to understand plants down to their DNA, ultimately making them more resilient. With the same goal, he leads unique research collaborations providing solutions to growers for various vulnerabilities. Haring shares insights into his work and the knowledge and facilities that Amsterdam Science Park offers to new partners.

Can you give us a brief overview of your work?

Why do plants produce scents in flowers and green parts? They are thought to be communication tools with the outside world, especially with insects. We investigate the genetic properties a plant needs to recognize pest insects and to initiate the relevant scent production, mainly by studying wild tomato species. Once you know the genes involved, breeders can generate a commercial tomato that is no longer affected by a pest insect. You can imagine the business potential of our knowledge.

Michel Haring, Director SILS “Once you know the genes involved, breeders can generate a commercial tomato that is no longer affected by a pest insect. You can imagine the business potential of our knowledge. ”

How do you realize this business potential?

Although we asked these questions out of biological interest, we have strong connections with various major seed breeding companies in the Netherlands. In the above-mentioned projects, we have been collaborating for years with both Enza and Rijkzwaan. Through Topsector projects with these parties we are able to connect our own field of research with real applications.

Recently, we’ve expanded our focus to viruses that are transmitted through insects. We are one of the few labs in the Netherlands that conducts this kind of research because it is quite challenging. We have to work with plants, insects and viruses, which  needs careful control. If companies are interested, they approach us because we have the genetic knowledge that they can use for their breeding processes.

How does such a collaboration with a company generally begin?

We train many people here, both Master and PhD graduates will find employment in the industry. Often, people we have trained end up working for breeding companies and they know what we do. If, in a company, they encounter a specific problem, one of them might say, ‘well, you should talk to Michel’s group.’

Do you also collaborate with other parties at the Science Park?

There is currently a Growth Fund project, called Crop XR, which is a large initiatives involving multiple universities and all companies in the plant sector in the Netherlands. They aim to quantify all the biological knowledge we have, enabling predictions.

The project mainly focuses on traits a plant must have to cope with a rapidly changing environment, resisting drought, heat, insects, and fungi. What genetic make-up is needed to obtain a more resilient plant? These are complex processes, for which we will use AI tools to generate new insights. We are involved because SILS has a strong Data Analysis research group and there are connections with all kinds of AI experts in LAB42. This way, we hope to progressively build a model, developing a plant that is increasingly resistant to stress.

What do you find important about the ecosystem at the Science Park? What would you like to highlight for interested parties?

We have excellent research facilities here. As a company you can rent a laboratory suitable for the type of work you do. The benefit is the proximity to a large number of experts in various fields, such as biology, physics, chemistry and AI. This allows for a rapid exchange of knowledge with experts.

The second point that always pleases companies: young people with a future. These students all want to learn about the scientific challenges, both academic and industrial. When companies are based here, it is very easy for us to place interns with those companies. If you are at Amsterdam Science Park, scouting for new talents is significantly easier than if you are an outsider.

How can we help you?

Looking for partners to collaborate. Or looking for a certain expertise? Or would you like to locate your business in the Amsterdam Science Park? Drop us a line and we help you to find a perfect match.

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