News - May 16, 2019

Luisa Trindade wants to make jeans from tomatoes

Albert Sikkema

The recently appointed professor with a personal chair Luisa Trindade breeds crops for the biobased economy. Following her motto ‘no waste’, she aims at using the entire bell pepper and tomato plants.

Trindade at an experiment with miscanthus. © WUR

‘The crops that we have at the moment were developed for food production, not for the biobased economy’, says Trindade, professor holding a personal chair in Plant Breeding. She wants to develop plants that can be processed entirely into food or non-food products. ‘I perceive plants as a factory of ingredients such as proteins, sugars and oils. These components can be used to manufacture products if there is sufficient societal demand.’

One well-known biobased plant is hemp; an alternative to cotton for the production of textiles. In collaboration with a plant breeding company, Trindade’s team developed three new hemp varieties for the production of fibres for the manufacture of jeans and other textile products. This hemp is already being grown in Europe, after which it is shipped to China for the processing into textile.

‘But there still is some way to go’, Trindade says. ‘We need to increase the yield, and the extraction of the fibres should be made easier. Moreover, we might be able to extract oil from the hemp plant; oil for salads as well as cannabinoids for pharmaceutical applications. These substances help against insomnia, various forms of cancer and can induce or inhibit appetite.’

To make these applications possible, Trindade is currently conducting an experiment with 125 different varieties of hemp plants. ‘We want to itemise the properties and their corresponding genome regions, so that we know which varieties we should cross to select a given property.’

Her research group is also working with miscanthus, a variety of grass originating from East Asia. So far, miscanthus is mainly used as an energy crop, but it can also be used to produce paper, insulating materials and bioplastics. Pilot studies are currently being carried out for these applications. These have shown that Trindade will have to find a better crop that combines high yield with better fermentation to produce bioethanol.

Finally, the new professor wants to breed food crops such as tomatoes and cucumbers in order for the leaves and branches of these crops to become usable as well. Trindade outlines there are large amounts of proteins and fibres in these plants, so the tomato fibres could also be used to manufacture jeans. But the crops also produce substances that protect the plant against fungi. She wants to investigate which bioactive substances those are and whether they can be used as a preservative or as a natural pesticide.

Her research group, which is part of the Plant Breeding group, consists of around twenty researchers, half of whom are PhD candidates. Her employees work at both the university and Wageningen Research. She also collaborates with animal and nutrition researchers. ‘We need to combine the various perspectives of plant physiology, genetics, conversion technology and consumer preferences in the biobased economy.’