Increasing the predictive power of plant breeding

A world class centre dedicated to applying precision plant breeding techniques was opened by Dutch agriculture minister Carola Schouten on 15 June 2020. The Breeding Technology Centre (BTC) at Dümmen Orange’s headquarters in De Lier, the Netherlands, is instrumental in developing ornamental plants and flowers with resistance to biotic and abiotic factors.

Dümmen Orange’s Head of Research and Development, Hans van den Heuvel has made it his  mission to make sure that varieties with outstanding yields, end-use quality and supply chain and environmental performance will make it to market. Ready for use as Intrinsa-branded products to be precise.

Since 2015, Hans van den Heuvel is Head of Research and Development at Dümmen Orange, a conglomerate of ornamental plant breeding and propagating companies. Hans, who studied plant and crop sciences and agricultural economics at Wageningen University, previously worked at Wageningen UR, as Head of Research at De Ruiter Seeds and director R&D at Limagrain Vegetable Seeds.

He is currently involved in establishing the presence of Dümmen Orange’s new state-of-the art R&D centre. Here, there is no better teacher than nature. By deciphering and analysing the genetic code of plants, world class researchers learn about the precise biological causes for existing or missing resistances. The next challenge is to move the new, Intrinsa branded flowers and plants from development to market with speed required to remain competitive.

FCI: What is the primary goal of Dümmen Orange’s new BTC?

Hans van de Heuvel: “To be the new home for our Trait and Technology programme aimed at identifying the traits we must build into our breeding programmes for cut flowers, bulbs, tropical plants, potted plants, bedding plants and perennials.

“When I joined Dümmen Orange five years ago, the then owners set a clear goal: level up research and development in ornamental plant breeding so it can compete with the fresh produce industry.

“The problem in ornamental plant breeding is that following thousands of years of domestication and breeding with the focus being on attractive flowers, desirable traits such as drought or heat or cold resistance have been selected out of the gene pool. There are blooms in all colours of the rainbow, sizes, and shapes but we have neglected the traits that protect the plants. BTC aims at a very systematic approach by combining the Trait and Technology programme with classical breeding, that is, screening botanical material for the presence of lost traits and building these into the current breeding programmes. This approach adds value to existing and new varieties.

“Second, the BTC strives to increase the predictive power of plant breeding by using the latest technology and tools. So that the outcome of our programmes is guaranteed and is not dependent on simple luck or serendipity. Instead, we set product profiles and breeding targets based on criteria from all actors in the value chain including growers, traders, logistic service suppliers and end consumers. Once the pool with identified traits is complete, we will apply those technologies, and this will lead to higher predictive rates, speed and confidence when creating new varieties.”

The new BTC operates in a multi-disciplinary environment, am I right?

“We have brought all research areas under one roof with pathologists, cell biologists. genomicists, geneticists, plant physiologists, all contributing to the programmes. I can see most of the excitement happening at the interface with other disciplines, resulting in great trait discoveries.”

What can you tell us about the first outcomes?

“I could never have imagined how far we would have come. So far, we have identified no fewer than six unique, disruptive traits including their route to market. Their discovery coincides with the launch of Intrinsa, the new brand for these revolutionary new, premium priced varieties. In the pipeline for the next 24 to 36 months are powdery mildew resistance in kalanchoe, tobacco mosaic virus resistance in petunia as well as white rust (Puccinia horriana) resistance in cut and pot chrysanthemums and garden mums. What will follow within 36 months is powdery mildew and Agrobacterium tumefaciens resistance in cut roses. The latter discovery will hugely benefit east African production countries.”

We expect to see labels including High Resistant HR, Intermediate Resistance or Tolerant to a specified pest or pathogen in promotional catalogues. What makes a name such as Intrinsa different?

“The difference lies in identifying resistance in the living collections of botanical gardens, or in wild material that has been crossed with commercial material. In doing so we reveal the underlying genetics by using marker assisted selection which links the genes associated with desirable traits to specific markers on the genome. If you have no idea about the underlying genetics, the next time you do a cross it is basically like trying to find your keys in the dark. However, DNA markers in every generated population allow us to see as early as in the seedling stage which of the individuals has the marker. The DNA marker is a prediction of the trait. Once the marker- assisted selection is complete, we select for all other criteria and will validate the presence of the resistance by a bio essay and regular disease screening.

Hans van den Heuvel.

“Also, we validate externally through renowned research institutes and universities. Because we want to exclude all risks. At the end of the process, the product is ready for its official launch. Naturally, all new varieties will have outstanding ornamental features – that’s the bottom line. Mildew resistance in a variety alone is not enough. Novelty plants combine drop dead gorgeous mesmerising colours and shapes and, if desired, fragrance with disease resistance.”

Do BTC’s activities fall under the scope of the new breeding techniques?

“The term New Breeding Techniques (NBTs) is tricky as it is used to reference genetic modification. However, we do not make targeted changes to the plant’s DNA and as such we do not do GMO. Only native traits are used, identified botanic planting material. A better description of our activities would be DNA diagnostics to monitor whether these traits migrate into breeding programmes.”

How many genera are involved in your programmes, and how to decide which is the priority genus?

“The breeding programme includes 50 genera with ten crops being given the ‘full treatment’ – trait discovery followed by a genomics and genetics approach. However the remaining species equally benefit from predictive breeding.

“Over the past years, we have collected phenotypic data, and we know which properties and features a product need. Five years ago, we switched from subjective observation, the breeder’s gut feeling to a much more objective observation in which several characteristics of a plant is the key to performance throughout the entire value chain.

“These characteristics are mapped, recorded during our trailing and stored. If you have sufficient data of a pedigree of a potential crossing parent, you can have a prediction as to what this offspring will bring.

“Compare it with animal breeding: imagine you want to increase the protein content in your milk, and you have only a bull that does not produce any milk. The next thing to do is looking at the bull’s sisters, mother, and his aunts, grandmother and her sisters. Assessing three generations of data will allow you to predict the bull’s contribution to the next generation of protein content in milk.

“In plant breeding things are similar, irrespective whether we have a chrysanthemum or a perennial crop or a niche annual crop. We have the data, and we use it to increase the predictive power of our breeding programmes. With every generation and with every level an actor is seen in mapping objectively the characteristics that we want in our final product, the predictive power becomes more durable and more robust.

“So, we started in 2015 and for most of the crops we have had several years/seasons of data on the characteristics. Subsequently, we developed a tool in house that assists breeders in making the decision as to what crossing parent is best to use. Imagine that if you can choose from thousand different parents that not all the information of an individual potential crossing parents is in the head of the breeder. However, a data warehouse does not forget things. The tool helps to make data-driven decisions in their breeding process. This knowledge base is pretty exciting because after five years in ornamental breeding we are already way beyond with this predictive instruments than that we were in the vegetables sector five years ago. Obviously the fresh produce sector has made huge progress since but it is a fact that when I came here in 2015 the ornamentals industry was lagging 15 to 20 years behind. Today, we find ourselves at the same level or in some areas even beyond.”

Are new technologies being considered?

“Our researchers use tried and tested technologies which we also use in the breeding of vegetables, arable crops and animals. In a way, ornamental plant breeding was a kind of a blank canvas, so we apply the technology we feel is most useful for the various crops. In some crops, we use animal breeding practices related to genomic selection, simply because we must deal with a lot of complex traits and very complex genomic structures. Most vegetables are diploid, so you have two options for each locus. Chrysanthemum is hexaploid so there are already six options. At BTC we use all convention breeding techniques with the assistance of DNA diagnostics to monitor trait introgression.”

Ornamental horticulture is ten years behind in its acceptance of new breeding techniques compared to the vegetable sector. What can we learn from the fresh produce industry?

“A lesson that the floriculture business can learn from their counterparts in vegetables relates to seeds and their treatment. They are treating seeds to make them germinate very homogenously and quickly. The vegetable sector does everything within its capacity to ensure the enclosed genetics in these seeds reaches full power, with germination failures and seedlings dropouts or other irregularities being a no-go.

“However, I was appalled to see that we harvest cuttings offshore, pack them in a bag to transport them to Europe or North America and find ourselves highly disappointed about their quality. This may surprise only a few; if you do not treat a cutting properly it will not be triggered to root the moment it is cut. What we have learnt from the veg industry is that here nearly all things are related to priming and you can also use this wisdom in cuttings. Make the cutting believe that it is not a cutting but a young plant. A cutting that is not well treated is not triggered to root and may slip into a decay mode whereas a cutting that is treated/primed will do its utmost to become a young plant.”

Ultimately how will your customers, read the growers benefit?

“The focus is on crops with environmental performance. In many countries, the Netherlands in particular, the production of ornamentals is under scrutiny because of the presumed high use of chemicals to fight pests and diseases. I firmly believe that in the future we can refrain from chemical crop protection if our programme proves successful. Because whatever disease resistance we are after we will identify it. The focus is also on tolerance towards abiotic stresses. For the logistic supply chain for example, less temperature sensitive plants may help to increase the loading efficiency of trucks.”

What is the role of compatible wild species and ancestral varieties in providing genetic diversity?

“Key. Pivotal. All our new traits come from botanic material. Up 70 to 80 per cent of desirable traits is there but has not been selected. If you only select for attractive flowers you, in a way, indirectly select against all these other traits. This approach narrows the genetic base of your breeding programme.”

How to get access to botanic material?

A multi-disciplinary and international team including researchers from Brazil, Mexico, Spain, Italy, Spain, and the United States.

“When using natural resources there’s the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits to take into consideration. We only collaborate with gene-banks that meet the regulation’s due diligence requirements, and these are in many parts of the world: Europe, Asia and the Americas. There is a wealth of well-maintained genetic resources out there. Sometimes our company enters into a kind of sponsorship agreement, safeguarding tomorrow’s biodiversity. Alternatively, private plant collections can also be of use, but whatever genetic resource we use the Nagoya Protocol is leading. All in all, I would say that companies like ours do an excellent job in preserving biodiversity as we know better than anyone else how important its role is when keeping a constant influx of new plants onto the market.”

Precious breeding breakthroughs deserve protection using your Intrinsa brand or the PBR system. The latter you called it unfit for the future…

“The PBR system was developed at a time when hi-tech was not available. Look what has happened in Europe since. I can no longer obtain trait protection through the PBR system. Don t get me wrong. I support the cornerstone of the PBR system; freely available genetics for everyone so that the industry can gradually progress thanks to the genetics that have been collectively made. This system works perfectly if no one possesses technology. Today, however certain parties in this industry have technologies and spent hundreds sometimes thousands of millions of euros in developing certain traits. The reality is that you cannot protect them not via patents and PBR and this leaves a gap. The result means anyone in Europe who wants to use traits can technically take our varieties in Europe and do the crosses. So, this is a pressing issue to be resolved.”

Critics would say that the genetic pool should continue to be accessible for all, otherwise there is a risk of multi-nationals obtaining a monopoly.

“In a way, this is an unfair argument, especially if you compare the situation with the fresh produce industry. Here, at a certain point of time there were more than 150 traits pending in the patent application process. It resulted in the creation of the International Licensing Platform for the exchange of traits under FRAND terms. Everyone has access to it but it is not for free. The essence is that as a vegetable breeder you never risk being blocked. A similar initiative is easy to set up for our industry, though I candidly admit that so far, we do not have more than ten traits all together. By comparison:  the fresh produce industry boasts more than 200 traits.”

It is safe to say that your company’s ambition is to become the world leader in ornamental plant breeding and research. On what grounds do you feel the industry needs an additional R&D centre for ornamental research?

“At the end of the day, it is more about the application than the research. Take Professor Thomas Debener from Leibnitz University in Hannover. Some of his ground-breaking works on developing resistance in roses was done decades ago. However, none of the cut roses that are commercialised today have such resistance.

“My mission is to make sure that the products of our extensive, research really enter the market. It is easy to do the research – albeit its funding is very challenging. But the research work to be done can be done. It is the implementation that makes the difference. The bottleneck?  I am not sure. Somewhere there is a missing link and I am happy to work for a company that is bridging the gap between the core scientific activities and the breeder’s eye and to make sure that what we do in our upstream research gets implemented.”

The BTC fuelled the construction of breeding technology centres at your competitors. How do you avoid the problem of ornamental breeders operating on an island and starting to reinvent the wheel?

“Our traits are available for all interested parties.  I embrace the idea of an international licensing platform as mentioned before. We have no intention to sit on our traits and use them only for ourselves. There are lots of ways to make them available for others. But access is different than access for free, everyone will understand that.”

What are the financial details of the investment in BTC, the number of staff employed,  as well as the operating costs per year? These were not disclosed. Allow me to ask how secure the financing is?

“I am happy that we are owned by private equity firm BC Partners. They lent their full support to the BTC project, giving long term commitment that goes beyond the scope of the private equity. I think that our past successes and the prospects this technology holds for the future provide a strong basis for investment.”


BTC Quick Facts

Size: 4,000m2, three-storey building

Location: Dümmen Orange’s headquarters in De Lier, the Netherlands

Staff: No official numbers of employees are disclosed. A multi-disciplinary and international team including researchers from Brazil, Mexico, Spain, Italy, Spain, and the United States. Dutch researchers have a minority presence.

Core business: World class molecular research that marks the transition from classical to technology-driven plant breeding,

Construction kick-off event: An inaugural ceremony on Thursday 1 November 2018, with Westland’s Mayor Agnes van Ardenne-Van der Hoeven joining forces with former Dümmen Orange’s CEO Biense Visser and BCP representative Jan-Baptiste Wautier.

Opening: On Monday 15 June 2020 Dutch agriculture minister Carola Schouten opened the BTC via a video link.


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