Jenan Noureddine, wearing a white lab coat and a khimar, is holding up and examining a potted plant in a well-lit room with a monitor displaying temperature, humidity and CO2 readings.
Jenan Noureddine. Photo by Don Campbell.

Seeds of Resilience

Plant growth chambers will enable researchers to test how food crops fare under different conditions

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

Located in a basement lab of the Science Research Building, the chambers are equipped to mimic different types of growing conditions. Researchers can control the amount of heat, humidity, carbon dioxide and light intensity, as well as wind speed and direction 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 biological sciences, checks on the state of her Arabidopsis (rockcress). These small flowering plants are related to cabbage and mustard and are among the most widely studied by biologists due to their status as a model organism (like the plant equivalent of a lab rat).

The chambers will be used for a range of 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.

A researcher, wearing a white lab coat and disposable gloves, has both arms stretched out, with each hand holding open the doors of a growth chamber. Plants occupy six well-lit shelves, divided by a metal barrier containing a screen and other instruments on the front. The same type of plant occupies the same level on either side of the barrier.
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. All photos by Don Cambell
Jena Noureddine, wearing a white lab coat, a mauve-coloured hijab and UV-protected sunglasses, tying the thin green stems of a thalecress plant to a wooden stick with a red sticker label attached at the top.
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.
Aparna Bhasin, wearing a white lab coat, UV-protected sunglasses and green disposable gloves, injecting liquid from a syringe into the green leaf of a Nicotiana plant.
Aparna Bhasin injects bacteria containing a gene receptor from Arabidopsis (thalecress) 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.
Aparna Bhasin and another researcher, wearing white lab coats and UV-protected sunglasses, are examining a green, leafy plant. The other researcher, wearing disposable blue gloves, is holding the leaf of a plant between his fingers.
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 stainless steel panel with the glass door open, inside of which contains a box labelled
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.

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