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Watching a plant grow and develop roots can be as tedious as … watching a plant grow. But seeing plant development as it unfolds can expose just what happens to a genetically modified organism, and how certain gene expressions can make plants do certain things. Robotic cameras and machine-vision algorithms are making the process easier.

Plant physiologist Edgar Spalding at the University of Wisconsin-Madison creates time-lapse movies of plant root growth in action. A 2,300-pound, 6-foot-high robotic camera rig snaps pictures every 30 seconds, capturing the curling, twisting motion of germinating seeds putting out new roots. The National Science Foundation, which funds Spalding’s lab, paid a visit and got a tour.

Genetically modifying a seed is a complex process on its own, but plant biologists also need to study the physical changes, comparing how genetically modified plants grow in relation to their wild-type brethren. This can take quite some time, so Spalding’s lab focuses on building high-throughput data analysis tools, including the camera and specialized algorithms.

Like other plant research labs, the Phytomorph lab is an impressively high-tech operation, with the research subject lending a greenhouse-like casual air. Tiny plants germinate and rotate their root systems in petri dishes inside a Plexiglas wall that resembles a giant Connect Four game. Each plant grows under white LEDs, and infrared LEDs are used to illuminate the CCD imager on the robotic camera.

Computer vision algorithms study the camera’s time-lapse videos and measure the sizes of seeds, plants’ cellular growth rates, the angle and curvature of the roots, and more.

The main goal is to study how genes function, according to the NSF. The Phytomorph program has led to some new insights about how plant roots grow, including how they grow facing down, growing with gravity. All of this could be useful in pinpointing genes that botanists and plant biotechnologists would want to exploit, creating plants with tougher roots, or roots that could more easily seek out water and nutrients.

“It lays the foundation for discoveries that will help improve plants for human purposes,” Spalding told the NSF.

National Science Foundation

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