Plant scientists reach for the skies with London rooftop experiments

Plant science researcher

Plant science researcher

Plant scientists reach for the skies with London rooftop experiments


New GroDome facility on roof of campus building %0A "

Imperial College London news release

For immediate use
Thursday 2 July 2009

A futuristic £1 million rooftop ’greenhouse’ which will enable central London scientists to grow large quantities of plants for experiments ranging from developing new sources of biofuels to helping sequence the tomato genome, has been built on top of a five storey building at Imperial College London.

The new Imperial GroDome is the only rooftop facility of its kind in London. It provides Imperial’s plant scientists with over 200 square metres of temperature and light controlled growing space for a variety of plant species, allowing them to carry out large-scale plant experiments in an urban location for the first time.

Since the structure was completed in April this year, three projects have already taken root in the GroDome:

1. Producing biofuels from willows

This project focuses on extracting sugars from the cell walls of willow trees, to ferment and turn into ’bioethanol’, a biofuel which can be used as a renewable alternative to petrol in cars, or for ’green chemistry’ for example to make plastics such as polyethylene.

Willows are a good potential biofuel crop because they contain a large amount of sugars in their stems, and can grow quickly in the UK’s climate and in a variety of soil types. However, getting the sugars out of their woody stems is difficult, because the cell walls in the stems have evolved to be tough – this very property helps the trees stand upright and resist invasion by pathogens and diseases.

50 young willows have been planted in the GroDome by researchers from the Division of Biology at Imperial and the College’s Porter Institute for Biofuels. Wood from the stems of these trees will be ground into very fine chips in the lab and then used to test new environmentally-friendly methods of extracting the sugars from within, including using fungi to digest the cell walls.

Dr Richard Murphy and colleagues are interested in using willows to produce biofuel

In addition, Porter Institute PhD research student Nick Brereton is conducting an experiment to uncover whether forcing the willows to grow at an angle – which causes the branches to bend upwards, creating differences in the composition of the wood – makes it easier to break down the cell walls in the lab.

Principal Investigator Dr Richard Murphy from the Porter Institute and the Division of Biology at Imperial explains the significance of their research:

"With fossil fuels becoming scarce commodities and the damage burning them does to the environment becoming more apparent, plants could provide us with a much needed alternative source of energy and materials. If we can find efficient, low-energy ways of getting our hands on the vast quantities of sugars and other chemicals locked up in willows and other woody biomass crops we will unlock a key non-food resource for biofuels which grows easily in cool climates like the UK.

"The support we have had from the Porter Institute, Rothamsted Research and the new BBSRC Sustainable Bioenergy Centre has been a key element in getting this vital research going."

2. Tomato stress resistance and sequencing the tomato genome

Sitting alongside the willows are numerous tomato plants belonging to another researcher from Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences. Dr Gerard Bishop’s fundamental research focuses on finding out more about the receptors inside the plant’s cells, which perceive hormones and are also involved in plant stress responses. The long term aim of his research is to use this knowledge to produce superior crops which are better able to survive in today’s changing environment.

Dr Bishop is studying dwarf tomato plants with the long term aim of growing higher yielding plants

More specifically, Dr Bishop is growing and studying dwarf tomato plants in the GroDome to try and understand what affects their growth and development, with the ultimate aim of growing higher yielding plants.

Dr Bishop is also involved in an international project to sequence the tomato genome, which will have a positive impact on research on many different plant species, because the tomato is a good model plant for studying traits in all fleshy fruit-bearing species.

Dr Bishop said: "Understanding more about the inner workings of plants we grow for food is important because the global population is increasing hugely and we’ll need to grow more food on this planet at a time when we are unsure as to what climate our crops will have to cope with. Understanding how plants can be generated to have higher yields and be more stress resistant will be essential for food security in the near future."

3. Aphid resistance in plants

The third research group currently using the GroDome has planted around 200 small legume plants called – known as Barrel Medic – to study the how aphids, a serious agricultural pest, interact with plants.

Aphids, otherwise known as greenfly, are sap-feeding pests with long, sharp, needle-like mouth parts which penetrate from the leaf surface down to the plant’s nutrient-transporting vascular system to suck out sugars and amino acids. The feeding aphids lead to decreased plant growth rates, but they cause even more severe problems by transmitting plant viruses, resulting in symptoms such as mottled leaves, yellowing, stunted growth, curled leaves, browning, wilting, low yields and even plant death.

However, aphids are not able to suck the sap out of all plants – varieties of lettuce, melon and tomato plants are all known to show some resistance. Dr Glen Powell from Imperial’s Department of Life Sciences is leading a team who are using the Barrel Medic to investigate how plants defend themselves against aphids. Particular varieties of the Barrel Medic tend to be either highly susceptible or highly resistant to aphid attack, with the differences often being explained by single genetic changes. In the long run the team hope that a better understanding of such effective plant defence will help breed resistance into plants which are not n a turally resistant.

Dr Powell explains that improving our fundamental understanding of these plant – insect interactions is important because the aphid pest problem could become worse as a result of climate change:

"Aphids are more of a problem for farmers in warmer climates where they each give birth to 50 -100 live offspring, each of which starts to reproduce within a week, leading to rapid infestation of crops. As the global climate changes, farmers who have not had to worry about aphids before may find they’re more of a problem. I hope our work on the mechanisms of resistance could help to bolster crop protection in the future when food shortages and food security become a reality."

The GroDome is the part of a development project to support plant science research on Imperial’s South Kensington campus, which has also seen the refurbishment of laboratories and the installation of controlled environment plant growth rooms for smaller plants, as well as imaging labs and mass spectrometry facilities.

-Ends-