Photographer:Fotograaf: Joey Roberts
Imagine you, a researcher, are given a bag of money, unlimited time and personnel. What research would you do? University Professor Peter Peters dreams of producing healthy vegetables and fruit using the latest DNA technology.
“Every scientist should cherish a dream, otherwise you are washed out and don't belong at a university, as far as I'm concerned.” Harsh words from nanobiologist Peter Peters, who often specifically asks his colleagues at the Maastricht Multimodal Molecular Imaging institute (M4I): what is your dream? “Scientists are not triggered enough to think outside the box. And a dream is by definition thinking outside the box.”
The town of Venlo and a radius of a hundred kilometres around it is one of the largest vegetable and fruit centres worldwide, Peters begins. “No less than 70 per cent of all these seeds come from the Netherlands, but the question is: can the Netherlands maintain its leading position? Or will we become the ‘Nokia’ of the seed world? You know that Nokia used to be leading in mobile technology, but at decisive moments, especially when apps started to appear, they missed the boat.”
What is the problem? Since recently there has been a revolutionary technology called CRISPR-Cas. With this technology, DNA and so also the proteins can be adapted in no time at all; it's a matter of cutting and pasting. CRISPR-Cas can be used to cut away hereditary diseases but also to improve seeds. “What is now taking years, will soon be done much faster, safer, more efficiently and more sustainably. Something like wheat with very little gluten could be created within six weeks. You could also put an end to the potato disease called late blight; you would no longer need to spray environmentally harmful pesticides on fields ten times a year. And last but not least, you could add extra vitamins to rice.”
All this is possible, but not immediately. In Europe, there is strict legislation for this new technology (comparable to genetic manipulation). In China, Japan, and the US, on the other hand, cutting and pasting is done on a large scale in order to improve vegetables and fruit. “Fortunately, the Dutch government shows less restraint than the EU, and research with CRISPR-Cas is permitted. It is a dream of mine to apply this technology in such a way that pathogens can no longer harm potato plants or strawberries.”
Peters, who is himself a farmer's son, is not sitting still. On the sidelines, he wants to set up a research group that works with the industry and M4I on modern seed improvement. Logically the group would be located in Venlo, because of the proximity of the vegetable and fruit sector to the Brightlands Campus Greenport. “The only thing is that it’s not easy to find good people in a pioneering environment, where there is no thriving academic setting yet, although it will come.”
Some of the research could be carried out at Peters' institute, where much of the advanced equipment is already present.
The impact of the latest technology goes far beyond the quality of seeds and hence the quality of vegetables and fruit, Peters says. “At the moment, it takes a lot of effort to find labourers, for example, to pick strawberries. Labourers from countries such as Poland are not coming here in the numbers they did before, because their economy is growing. I think we need to get rid of that kind of hard labour anyway. This is also possible with CRISPR-Cas, as you could lengthen the stems from which the strawberries hang, to enable mechanised picking.”