Plant Growth Chambers: Mass Phenotyping with the iMaster

Biology – and genetics in particular – is a key science of the twenty-first century. A central question is how genetics influence the shape – the phenotype – of a living being. Why do some plants of one species have rather long leaves, others rather round leaves? Why do some plants grow faster than others? To answer these questions, the Gregor Mendel Institute (GMI) is investigating the growth behaviour of different plants under different environmental conditions. In order to create defined and reproducible environmental conditions (temperature, irrigation, light), the plants are positioned in climate chambers. Up to 1500 plants fit into one chamber.

Not only the environmental simulation data must be reliably recorded, but also the growth of each individual plant and each of its leaves. Together with Johnson Controls – a leading manufacturer of plant growth chambers with freely programmable environmental conditions – we have developed a portal system with a swivel arm that performs both tasks. Inside the chamber there is a swivel arm on which a camera is mounted that automatically scans the plants on the shelves in the chamber at regular intervals. The images are stored synchronously with the environmental data in a central database and are available via a web-based user interface. The automatic in situ measurement with modern image processing methods not only saves an enormous amount of time, but also objectifies the results.

The researchers can now investigate with little effort how the plants would grow if they were in Sweden, for example. The iMaster can use online weather services to record the environmental conditions on-site and control the chamber in Austria accordingly.