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CAN (ON): Toronto university plant biologists use high-tech growth chambers to develop stronger crops

In the basement of the University of Toronto Scarborough's Science Research Building are four chambers that look like industrial walk-in fridges in a restaurant – but they're high-tech labs where biologists are conducting plant experiments that could one day lead to more resilient food crops.

Located in the building's Plant Growth Facility, these newly installed chambers are equipped to mimic different types of growing conditions, with researchers able to control heat, humidity and light intensity as well as speed and direction of wind inside the chambers – enabling them to test the effects of stressors such as drought, heat and infections on plant growth.

There's even an astronomical clock that can recreate the average amount of sunlight during different times of year in any part of the world.

Don Campbell/ U of T

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.

"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.

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

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

The chambers can be set to 75 per cent humidity (90 per cent with the lights off) and reach a maximum 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.

Their brightest setting can output nearly as much light as a sunny day in Toronto during the summer. The LED lights in the newer chambers can get so intense that UV protective eyewear is recommended as a safety precaution.


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