Nebraska's high tech greenhouse puts plants on the right track: BTN LiveBIG

Nebraska's high tech greenhouse puts plants on the right track: BTN LiveBIG

When a winter storm whips up on the plains and pummels Lincoln with thick snow and cold winds, researcher Amy Hilske knows just the place to be: the University of Nebraska’s Phenotyping Greenhouse.

“It really is fun to be here,” says Hilske, the director of the facility. “The greenhouse is so warm and hot; you’re sunny and 80 degrees throughout the whole year.”

But it isn’t just the comfortable clime that has Hilske excited to show up for work every day. A one-of-a-kind facility, the Phenotyping Greenhouse affords plant biologists, horticulturists and botanists an almost futuristic setting in which to conduct their studies.

“It’s really rare for a university of have a facility like this,” Hilske explains. “It’s a high-tech greenhouse system. What we do is we grow plants and put them on a conveyor belt where everything is automated. We can program the watering, the lights, the humidity, the temperature.”

In a nutshell, phenotyping is the study of the observable characteristics of an organism, such as behavior, biochemical composition and development, and the influence of and interaction with environmental factors. That may involve, for example, examining how a particular strain of oat is able to thrive in particularly saline soil or what makes one millet variety more drought-resistant than others.

It’s research that, up to now, usually involved the dissection and destruction of the plant sample. But Nebraska’s Phenotyping Greenhouse does away with that needless culling in favor of some tools that are as equally as advanced as and seamlessly integrated with the facility’s automated grow system.

“We measure a lot of different components,” says Hilske. “We can do simple things like plant height and weight, but we can also [take] infrared or fluorescence images. It’s kind of like an X-Ray for plants. We’re the only ones that can image a fully mature corn plant.”

A great majority of the work being done in the Phenotyping Greenhouse is in service of a noble goal: feeding our hungry – and growing – planet. To do so, researchers like Harkamal Walia, a molecular physiologist, are using the greenhouse to develop crops that are both high yielding and tolerant to environmental fluctuations around the world.

Looking specifically into rice and wheat, Walia alters soil composition and quality along with watering frequency to put the grain plants to the test. He is able to use the facility to take the temperature of individual plants, measure chlorophyll levels, even take a look inside the specimen. Computer scientists aid in data analysis, helping Walia and his team link certain traits to specific DNA sequences.

With our planet’s population on a steep upswing, environmental conditions in flux and land use hotly contested around the world, Walia sees the Phenotyping Greenhouse as central to solving this most pressing of global challenges.

“This space and infrastructure provides us the platform to make discoveries at a pace that we otherwise would not have achieved. It creates a level and volume of data that allows us to be able to derive meaningful information. It’s very rewarding.”

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