New plant growth chambers may help researchers develop stronger crops

Researcher looks at plant next to a growth chamber with bright lights
U of T Scarborough PhD candidate Jenan Noureddine (Photos by Don Campbell)

Don Campbell

Four new chambers used to grow plants will allow biologists at U of T Scarborough to do research that may one day lead to stronger, more resilient food crops.     

Located in the Plant Growth Facility, a basement lab in the Science Research Building, the chambers are equipped to mimic different types of growing conditions. 

While they look a lot like the industrial walk-in fridges you see in restaurants, there’s nothing frigid about what’s inside. Researchers can control the amount of heat and humidity, light intensity, as well as the speed and direction of wind inside the chambers. They even have an astronomical clock that can recreate the average amount of sunlight received during different times of year in any part of the world.

Here, Jenan Noureddine, a PhD candidate in the Department of Biological Sciences, checks on the state of her Arabidopsis plants. These small flowering plants are related to cabbage and mustard and are among the most widely studied by plant biologists due to their status as a model organism (like the plant equivalent of a lab rat). 

There are 21 growth chambers in the facility used for a range of plant experiments, including identifying genes that are important for disease resistance and proteins that help regulate growth and development.    

“The ultimate goal is to translate our research into improved crop varieties that can support local agriculture,” says Adam Mott, an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences who manages the facility.

Mott says an important feature of the new chambers is the ability to control carbon dioxide levels, which will allow scientists in the facility to develop experiments to study climate change. 

Researchers water the plants while they are inside the chambers and can test the effects of a variety of different stresses on plants including infections, drought and heat, among others.  

The LED lights in the newer chambers can get so intense that UV protective eyewear is recommended as a safety precaution. 

The new growth chambers received funding courtesy of a grant from the Office of the Vice-Principal Research and Innovation at U of T Scarborough.

Researcher opening doors to growth chamber
While on the outside they look like walk-in fridges used in restaurants, there’s nothing frigid about what’s inside. The chambers can be set to 75 per cent humidity (90 per cent with the lights off) and reach a max temperature of 40 degrees Celsius — conditions akin to the Amazon rainforest during summer. Each chamber has a growing space of 18 cubic metres and the top shelf can move up or down to make space for tall plants to grow.
Researcher ties a stem to a stick using string
Noureddine ties the Arabidopsis stems to wooden sticks. This provides structural support for the plants, allowing them to grow upright and protecting them from damage. The researchers will also collect seeds when the siliques (seed pods) have dried and turned brown. This allows researchers to reproduce the plant while keeping its genetic information intact.
Two researchers look at the stem of a green plant
Researchers wear sunglasses with UV protection to shield from the light. The chamber’s brightest setting can output nearly as much light as a sunny day in Toronto during the summer.
A square instrument that measure carbon dioxide
This instrument precisely measures carbon dioxide concentrations inside the chamber. The ability to control carbon dioxide levels, which allows scientists in the Plant Growth Facility to study the effects of climate change on plants, is a novel feature of the growth chambers.
Researcher uses syringe to inject plant with bacteria
Aparna Bhasin injects bacteria containing a gene receptor from Arabidopsis into her Nicotiana plant. This particular gene was chosen because it’s been shown to improve immunity to pathogens in other plants. Bhasin’s research aims to identify genes that can improve plant immunity, and apply her findings to food crops. This Nicotiana, which is related to the plant containing tobacco leaves, typically grows in tropical climates, conditions researchers can mimic in the growth chambers.