Maria Cuacos | Crop Research at IPK Gatersleben

Breeding Research on the Way to a Plant-Based Bioeconomy

Soft rain showers down, nourishing the vibrant green foliage below, while a gentle breeze rustles through the leaves. The temperature is rising fast. We are exposed to the blistering heat of a summer day.

But this is not the tropics. We are not even outside.

PhenoSphere at IPK Gatersleben
Copyright: IPK

On this mild and rainy winter day, we are surrounded by plants in the so-called PhenoSphere at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research (IPK) in Gatersleben, Germany.

For fundamental and application-oriented research, there is a need to expose crops to the relevant field-like conditions of current and anticipated climate scenarios in a reproducible manner – such as severe drought, higher temperatures, and increased CO2 concentration.

The Institute’s unique plant cultivation facility is a novel tool to study the plant’s response to altered weather and environmental conditions and thus specifically improve their properties.

Plant Research in Gatersleben

The scientific focus at the IPK is on developing new insights into the structure, function, and evolution of genetic material, on the conservation, research, and development of the hereditary diversity of important cultivated plants, their ancestors, and wild relatives. The IPK is one of the leading international scientific institutions in these fields.

Around 180 IPK researchers are dedicated to:
• the elucidation of fundamental principles of evolution and plant development,
• the improvement of the adaptability of important crop plants to changing environmental and climatic conditions, and
• the development of innovative approaches to knowledge-based maintenance, exploration, and utilization of crop diversity.

The institute owns a wide range of microscopes – from widefield light microscopes to confocal laser scanning, super-resolution and electron microscopes. Around 30 research groups work on various research questions with these tools.

Crop Research with light microscopy at IPK Gatersleben
Crop Research with light microscopy at IPK Gatersleben
Crop Research with light sheet microscopy at IPK Gatersleben

Microscopy is an important link between the different research groups.

Michael Melzer | IPK Gatersleben

Microscopy is a core technology in modern plant research. While its classical use has been to characterize morphology and structure, the focus is increasingly shifting to the study of growth and cell dynamics, where cellular and subcellular events are monitored on living plant tissue. One of the leading research issues for crop scientists is the adaptation of plants to unfavorable environmental conditions and the strategies they adopt to cope with environmental stress.

Maria Cuacos | Crop Research at IPK Gatersleben

Plant Cultivation and Cytogenetics

Dr. Maria Cuacos is interested in the process of plant meiosis that generates genetic variation through homologous recombination. However, particularly in cereal crops including barley, meiotic recombination events are limited and skewed towards chromosome ends, whereby a large portion of the genetic information remains untapped in breeding programs. Traditional plant breeding, which harnesses natural genetic variation arising during meiosis, will play a key role in delivering crop improvements in the near future.

Live-cell imaging is a powerful method to obtain insights into meiosis, where chromosomes and other cellular components such as the cytoskeleton follow an elaborate choreography over a relatively short period of time. Cuacos uses light sheet microscopy to observe this fast and delicate process. Her major samples are Arabidopsis, followed by wheat and tobacco. She prepares her samples under the stereo microscope.

Veit Schubert | Crop Research IPK Gatersleben

Schubert is showing the difference between widefield and super-resolution structured illumination microscopy (SIM) images. SIM delivers a much better resolution while enabling high-dynamic imaging.

Dr. Veit Schubert works on chromosome structure and function. His group’s research focus is the biology of chromosomes. Their main objective is to explore the regulation, organization, segregation, and evolution of the mitotic, meiotic, and interphase chromosomes of model, wild, and crop species. Such knowledge has the potential to increase the efficiency of the crop breeding process. Their research relies heavily on microscopy.

Schubert’s favorite tools are the ZEISS super-resolution microscopes Elyra PS.1 and Elyra 7 since his research questions are often driven by quantification challenges, e.g. counting of molecules.


Arabidopsis thaliana widefield microscopy image
Arabidopsis thaliana structured illumination microscopy image

Understanding the Organization of Cell Nuclei

Arabidopsis thaliana is a model plant that helps to understand the organization of cell nuclei.

  • The global chromatin is labeled by DAPI and shows dense heterochromatin (chromocenters) containing centromeric tandem repeats (red).
  • Compared to widefield (left image), SIM (right image) reveals the ultrastructure of chromatin and centromeres.

Without having identified the structure, I am not able to understand the function.

Veit Schubert | IPK Gatersleben

Twan Rutten | Crop Research IPK Gatersleben

Rutten is showing plant samples prepared for SEM. They must be preserved by dehydration because the coating system and SEMs operate under high vacuum.


Structural Cell Biology

Dr. Michael Melzer heads a group focusing on plant morphology, lodging resistance and drought stress to improve agronomically relevant traits in crops or biotechnological procedures. However, they are also in charge of the development of protocols suitable for the preparation of plant tissue for live cell imaging, ultrastructure analysis, three-dimensional reconstruction, and immunolocalization.

Electron Microscopy (EM) is Melzer’s favorite tool for uncovering structural changes in plants that can be traced back to altered environmental conditions such as climate change. The challenge of imaging plants with EM is that there is a lot of air in the samples, and they have thick cell walls. Scanning electron microscopy (SEM) Blockface Imaging is used to look at bigger areas, e.g. chloroplasts of ten micrometers in size.

The organization and structural composition of plant organs are the main topics of interest for the junior staff member Dr. Twan Rutten whose work often requires a combination of SEM and confocal laser scanning microscopy.

Paving the Way for a Sustainable Future

Crop research is an important field that is constantly evolving as scientists strive to develop more efficient and sustainable agricultural practices. Cultivating crops that are more tolerant to drought, heat, and other environmental stresses, as well as improving crop nutrient content and quality, will remain key challenges both for the teams at the IPK and for plant researchers globally.

There are also important social and economic aspects to crop research, such as the need to develop crops that are more affordable and accessible to farmers in developing countries. In addition, there is a growing interest in sustainable and organic farming practices, which are becoming increasingly popular among consumers worldwide.

Overall, crop research is a dynamic and rapidly evolving field that is critical to ensuring food security and sustainability in the face of global challenges such as climate change and population growth.

IPK Gatersleben

The IPK is located in Gatersleben, a small village of about 2,500 inhabitants in Salzlandkreis, Germany.

About the IPK

The IPK is a member of the Leibniz Association and is organized as a non-profit foundation under public law. According to its statutes, the Institute's tasks include basic and applied research on crops.

Founded in 1943 as the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Crop Plant Research, it was incorporated into the Academy of Sciences of the GDR in 1948 and re-established as IPK in 1992.

The Institute moved from Vienna to Gatersleben in 1945 - to provide a safe place to store all plant samples during the war and to respond to growing concerns about food security. Located in the rain shadow of the Harz Mountains, Gatersleben has ideal climatic conditions and good loessal soils. For this reason, it has long been a preferred location for plant breeding.

Over the course of 80 years, the Institute has developed into one of the world's leading plant research centers. 180 scientists and 60 postgraduate students from more than 40 countries work at the IPK.

Area of IPK Gatersleben

The Institute uses a total of 75-80 hectares of farmland, of which 60 hectares are on campus and the rest is leased from nearby landowners.

Area of IPK Gatersleben

The Gatersleben site maintains 32 large glasshouses, housing 89 independently controllable compartments; the total area covered by this facility extends to over 6,800 m2.

The Power of Genetic Diversity in Crops

The research goals of the Institute are directed towards the efficient and sustainable supply of food, energy, and raw materials and thus towards meeting global challenges. At the IPK, the conservation, research, and utilization of the genetic diversity of crops in the Federal Ex situ Gene Bank are combined with innovative research approaches in the fields of molecular genetics, genome research, molecular plant biology, systems biology, bioinformatics, and modelling. The IPK’s work contributes to the development of a plant-based bioeconomy and related social change.

The four departments of the IPK are the gene bank, breeding research, molecular genetics and physiology, and cell biology.

With a total inventory of more than 150,000 accessions from almost 3,000 species, the IPK’s gene bank is one of the largest facilities of its kind in the world.

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