It's almost like being in a sci-fi movie. Picture a large sort of building enclosing modular greenhouses and air-conditioned containment rooms wherein the aerial and root parts of thousands of plants (some ferried to the rooms from their growing area by robots) are filmed by cameras in different wavelengths! Welcome to the Platform for High Throughput Plant Phenotyping (PPHD) in Dijon that will be inaugurated on July 6. The one-of-a-kind platform will provide researchers at the Joint Unit for Agro-ecology Research (INRA/CNRS/University of Burgundy/AgroSup Dijon) and the national and international scientific community with high-tech equipment to produce plant matter in perfectly controlled conditions and to characterize it with nondestructive methods.
A one-of-a-kind platform Crédits : Christophe Salon/INRA
The development of so-called 'sustainable' agriculture, in other words more environmentally friendly farming, requires a renewal of crop systems based on increased farming of plant genetic variability and of organism interaction. "So, we need to characterize the phenotypes of cultivated plants, focus on plant-pathogenic telluric/mutualistic microorganism interaction and the impact of the abiotic environment," INRA Research Director and PPHD Scientific Director Christophe Salon explained. This means the systematic intra or inter specific exploration of the natural or induced genetic diversity of plants and of their adaptation to fluctuating, constrained, or even stressful environmental conditions. This necessarily involves having plant phenotyping platforms in controlled conditions and combining high-throughput and accurate continuous measurements of the plants' environment and their phenotype.
Cameras Keeping a Watchful Eye on Greenhouse Plants
The PPHD (inauguration scheduled on July 6 in Dijon) is the achievement of a project that began back in 2006 and whose development was funded by INRA, the Regional Council of Burgundy, the European FEDER fund and the 2010 Recovery Fund. A share of the backing came from Avenir investments via the PHENOME project, which is the backbone for all French skills and expertise in plant phenotyping. The Dijon based platform is also involved in several European projects such as ABSTRESS, ARIMNET and the European Plant Phenotyping Network (EPPN). PPHD is fitted with several innovative systems including two flagship phenotyping tools based on image analysis in different wavelengths. The tools make it possible to characterize different biological units using automated nondestructive equipment. "Phenotyping can be done on a large number of plants where few measurements are taken, or on a few plants, with more measurements for characterization taken on a daily basis," Christophe Salon said.
One phenotyping system adapted to small units, i.e. seeds in Petri dishes, seedlings or microorganism colonies, is fitted with a mobile camera that can sweep the measurement area. The other phenotyping system, which is for large units such as potted plants and rhizotrons, is equipped with stationary cameras. Conveyors bring the plants from the crop areas to the cameras. They operate in visible light and near infrared, some use fluorescence, making it possible to monitor the level, frequency or in situ expression site of an interesting gene, via a 'reporter protein'.
The platform will also be getting another very original system, i.e. rhizotrons, thanks to investments from the PHENOME program. This type of system comprises two glass slides enclosing the soil and root system of the cultivated plant, making it possible to see the interaction between the plant and telluric microorganisms, resulting in the formation of nodosities in legumes. "The research is especially critical because, despite its long-standing interest for researchers, the root system had been neglected because it was so hard to access," Christophe Salon recalled. More than one thousand rhizotrons will gradually be set up at the PPHD platform that, in a few months, will be able to boast that it is the world's only facility with a system of this size.
Innovation Epitomizing PPHD
The especially innovative rhizotrons were designed by an INRA-Inoviaflow (a small Burgundy based business) partnership. "Having the rhizotrons means we can grow plants in sterile conditions, a first. We will be able to select a type of plant and a microbe, or a collection of microorganisms and combine them in these rhizotrons, and observe how they behave," the PPHD Scientific Director exclaimed. All the innovations will eventually clear the way for the creation and selection of new plant varieties. Thanks to the platform, researchers will be able to combine phenotyping and genotyping speeds faster and gain an understanding of plant genome more swiftly. "Our goal is to find genotypes that best match our needs and that are the most likely to adapt to the environmental conditions where we want to grow them," said Christophe Salon who also said that industry operators in varietal selection, especially seed producers, are very interested in the research at the platform. This outstanding, unmatched tool will benefit projects that have been accredited by the Vitagora competitive cluster, which is fully committed to the development of PPHD, especially via the PHENOME project.