ILVO opens state-of-the-art ‘Hydras’ field lab to accelerate development of drought-tolerant crops

In an absolute first, Flanders Research Institute for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (ILVO) in Melle, Belgium, has opened a large state-of-the-art field lab that allows scientists to monitor the drought response of the entire plant from leaf to root.

More than 8,000m² of experimental fields are fitted with 6 mobile rainout shelters, a network of almost 1,400 electrodes and drones with advanced sensors.

Groundbreaking is not only the large scale of this field lab but also the electrical network that maps soil moisture levels and water uptake by plant roots. ILVO is the first in the world to make this combination of technologies on this scale. It is open access for companies and knowledge institutions and will serve to accelerate the development of drought-tolerant crops in Europe.

Flemish Minister for Agriculture and Innovation Jo Brouns: “The effects of climate change on our food production are being felt in several places in Europe. Thanks to this investment of a total of 1.5 million euros of Flemish funds, scientists and companies can develop crops that are more drought resistant more quickly, to help guarantee access to sufficient, affordable and safe food in Europe.”

Using phenotyping, scientists map and relate characteristics of plants to their genetics, cultivation techniques and environment. For example, the degree to which they evaporate water (evapotranspiration) says something about how well they continue to grow during periods of drought stress. Thanks in part to the introduction of drones, sensor technology and image analysis, this science has advanced rapidly in recent years. Using what they call “high-throughput field phenotyping,” scientists can collect a great deal of useful data on individual plants in a very short time in a realistic production environment: on the field.

With the new HYDRAS installation – which stands for ‘HYdrology, Drones and RAinout Shelters’ – ILVO takes it up a notch. HYDRAS combines the latest drone and sensor technology with an ‘ERT system’, a network of electrodes above and belowground that can map the electrical conductivity in the root zone to a depth of 2 meters at a resolution of 10 cm. This produces a 2D soil resistivity profile, which can be converted into information about the distribution of soil moisture and its uptake by plant roots. An important step for climate research, because until now these underground processes were still mostly a black box.

Isabel Roldán-Ruiz (ILVO): “The ERT system with HYDRAS is a game changer. We map the root system of plants in the field without needing to dig them up and we can continuously monitor their ability to extract water from different soil layers. It offers prospects for selection of drought-tolerant plants but also for agronomic research on how crop rotations, fertilization, irrigation, etc. affect drought stress in plants.”

ILVO is using the 2023 growing season to get to know the ERT system. What do the electrodes pick up and what can we deduce from it? This study should yield a proof of concept that will be published in the scientific literature this year. Soy was chosen as the test crop, as ILVO has already studied it extensively within climate research.

Starting next year, HYDRAS will be open access for other knowledge institutions and companies. Together with the 3 older rainout shelters installed by ILVO in 2016, the institute will then have more than 1 hectare of experimental fields available for high-throughput phenotyping in a drought-controlled environment. In the new section – accounting for a total of 8100m² and 6 mobile shelters – underground measurements of soil moisture will also become possible.

ILVO financed the construction of HYDRAS partly with funds from the Fund for Scientific Research (FWO). The Flemish Institute for Biotechnology (VIB) received funding in the same project (Emphasis Belgium) to renew its infrastructure for phenotyping in greenhouses and growth chambers. It’s a major asset for Flanders, where VIB and ILVO are located a stone’s throw away from one another, to have a state-of-the-art infrastructure for phenotyping under controlled and semi-controlled conditions.

Jérôme Van Biervliet (VIB): “What we discover in our growth chambers and greenhouses can be validated at ILVO under practical conditions and vice versa. This collaboration will boost the search for drought-tolerant crops for agriculture.”

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