Development of imaging technology to improve bioenergy crops

Yuan-Chuan Tai, PhD, associate professor of at Washington University School of Medicine, working in the Plant Imagining Lab in East Building of WUSM.

Yuan-Chuan Tai, PhD, associate professor of radiology at Washington University School of Medicine, working in the Plant Imagining Lab in East Building of WUSM. (Photo: Myra Lopez)

In the face of impending global climate change one of the greatest challenges will be maintaining a sustainable supply of renewable energy.

It’s clear that new approaches to produce climate resilient plants are desperately needed. Working jointly to develop new research tools to accelerate the breeding of biofuel crops are Yuan-Chuan Tai, PhD, associate professor of radiology at Washington University School of Medicine and Christopher N. Topp, PhD, with the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center, backed by funding from WUSTL’s International Center for Advanced Renewable Energy and Sustainability (I-CARES).

Their project uses a PlantPET imager, an instrument unique to Washington University, developed through a National Science Foundation award led by Tai, and a fairly new root phenotyping program at the Danforth Center led by Topp.

Yuan-Chuan Tai, PhD, associate professor of at Washington University School of Medicine, working in his Plant Imagine Lab.

Yuan-Chuan Tai, PhD, associate professor of radiology at Washington University School of Medicine, working in his Plant Imagine Lab. (Photo: Myra Lopez)

“Understanding the root process is critical to developing the next generation of crops that use fewer inputs to make more food, fuel and fiber in a changing global climate, Tai said.”

While PET scans have been widely used for clinical diagnosis and medical research, it has yet to gain traction by the plant research community due to its limited availability.

The project aims to create a multi-modal imaging platform that enables scientists to study the root system, developing new ways to measure how plants communicate and compete with each other underground.

“Root systems are high-value targets for crop improvement because of their potential to boost or stabilize yields in poor soils, improve disease resistance and reduce the need for unsustainable fertilizers,” Topp said. “However, our ability to leverage the substantial genetic variation in roots is hindered by a lack of tools that can accurately measure subterranean processes.”

The project captures dynamic 3D imaging of whole plants and carbon dynamics in roots in real time, without sacrificing the plant. The technology studies in real time, carbon flow from leaves to root, and how the carbon resources are allocated and utilized throughout the whole plant. The technology offers critical information on plant response to environmental changes and stresses, extremely useful information for accelerating breeding.

Unique Partnership

The partnership is unique in that it bridges the gap between medical and plant science.

“It’s not every day that a plant biologist and a nuclear physicist get to work together, Topp said in a blog posted on the Center’s website.

Tai added, “Such cross-fertilization of expertise is critically needed to usher in the next green revolution and training of a new breed of scientists.”

The team hopes to use its findings to develop strong proposals and apply for additional funding from the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, Department of Agriculture and other sources.

“The I-CARES funding bridges the gap, bringing together biologists, and people like myself who develop imaging technology, to have preliminary data to show the potential of this new tool,” Tai said. “I-CARES really planted the seed, and served as a springboard that really helped to move this promising technology from just a lab instrument into something that a user can appreciate.”