Specialized Plant Lab Moves into 21st Century

Dr. Carole Saravitz has to step over a puddle to open a plant growth chamber inside the Southeastern Plant Environment Laboratory on NC State’s campus. Such inconveniences are all too commonplace in the 42-year-old facility, commonly known as the Phytotron, which has the leaky pipes and balky utilities characteristic of many buildings its age. But $1.8 million in Recovery Act funding through the National Science Foundation (NSF) not only gives the Phytotron a needed face lift, University officials say, it also will open up new areas of research for NC State scientists.

The Phytotron is one of the largest labs in the world that provide controlled environments for growing and studying plants. Its 60 self-contained growth chambers give researchers the ability to control variables — such as temperature, water, light and even ozone — to test the effects on particular plants or mimic specific environmental conditions. A few chambers down from where a scientist is trying to determine how different turf grasses respond to football field-type paint, for example, another researcher is learning the growth mechanisms of noxious weeds so they can be controlled more easily. Transgenic plants and difficult hybrids also are tried out in some chambers. “The Phytotron is a critical step to getting into greenhouses and field testing,” says Saravitz, the lab’s director. “It’s one of the few opportunities to look at a suite of controlled parameters.”

Yet, the job has been made more difficult by the aging infrastructure within the building. Cold-temperature experiments, such as finding ways to make strawberries more frost-resistant, can be conducted only a few months each year because the chillers in the basement have to work overtime just to keep the building temperate from early spring to late fall. University maintenance workers have cannibalized parts from broken-down pumps to keep other machines operating. “We have 1960s-era technology, and we’ve had to make it work into the 2000s,” says Dr. Steve Lommel, associate director of the N.C. Agriculture Research Service.

The NSF grant — the same agency had provided the funding to build and initially operate the original Phytotron — is financing a massive internal upgrade over three years, including digital controllers for the growth chambers and new chillers. Also, a secure, specialized lab will be built in the Phytotron to study controlled plant pathogens, such as geminivirus and rust diseases, and to help develop resistance to them in crops. “We cover the gamut in plant sciences, from basic science to applied work,” Saravitz says. “The renovations will dramatically increase our research capabilities.”


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A much-needed face lift for the Phytotron will dramatically increase NC State’s research capabilities.