Ivo is researching the effects of climate change on plants

Ivo Rieu in een kas
I want to find out why some plants can withstand heat better than others
Ivo Rieu
Current role
Professor of Crop Biotechnology

Ivo Rieu is a Professor of Crop Biotechnology at Radboud University in Nijmegen. He leads research focused on how plants cope with climate change, particularly their response to heatwaves.

A current topic, as the changing climate has a significant impact on our food crops worldwide. Not only humans and animals suffer from heat stress, but plants do too. As a scientific researcher, Ivo Rieu and his team focus on crops grown for human consumption, such as tomatoes and beans.

‘The problem is that many plants become less fertile during periods of high temperatures. They produce fewer seeds and fruits. A heatwave when tomato plants are blooming can destroy the entire harvest.’

Developing crops

There are two possible solutions to this problem, and both are being applied. Ivo Rieu outlines: ‘There are farmers and gardeners who switch to another crop that is resistant to the heat. The second solution is to develop variants of crops with increased resistance to heatwaves. This is what we are researching.’

Genetic technology: time savings

As a biotechnologist, Ivo Rieu uses a plant or parts of it to cultivate a crop with desired characteristics. ‘In the past, breeding was done by crossbreeding and selecting plants by eye. Nowadays, we use genetic technology. With this technology, we save a lot of time because we can work at the gene level with seedlings and don’t have to go through the entire growing cycle. What used to take three months can now be done in a day.’

‘For example, a DNA sample is made from a piece of leaf. This sample is then "read" with special equipment. We don’t do this ourselves. There are companies specialised in this, and they provide us with the ready-made DNA code on which we conduct our research.’

Ivo Rieu tussen planten

Defense mechanisms

Using DNA, Ivo Rieu investigates the defense mechanisms of plants. 'We want to find out why some plants can withstand heat better than others. If we identify the piece of DNA responsible for this, we can selectively crossbreed plants and expose them to heat in a greenhouse. If it works, we test it on-site.

We have done this successfully in Italy, Spain, and Turkey. This is the applied part of our research. These insights help us make agriculture and horticulture more sustainable and climate-resilient. Breeding companies are already using the findings from our research.'

Understanding the defense mechanism

‘If we find a piece of DNA that makes a plant more heat-resistant, we also want to know how it works. What exactly does that piece of DNA do? We want to understand the defense mechanism.’

A process of at least ten years

According to Ivo Rieu, this defense mechanism can be used for different types of plants. This means that if the mechanism works in tomato plants, it will likely work in cucumbers or eggplants as well. ‘The piece of DNA that prevents heat stress in tomatoes can then be transferred to other crops.’

However, the whole process is not a quick fix. Ivo Rieu estimates that it will take at least ten years before such crops are available for cultivation and consumption.

Food security and sustainability

Ivo Rieu and his team are the only research group in the Netherlands focusing on this topic. ‘This research is becoming increasingly important because climate change is a global problem with significant impacts on our food crops.’

‘We provide solutions derived from nature or developed using a biotechnological approach. It is incredibly motivating to contribute to something as important as food security and sustainability.’