Parked just outside of Ames, Iowa, sits a building that looks like an ordinary Morton structure. However, it’s a building preparing plants for the future.
“In the Enviratron, we can set up experiments where we can grow plants and or multiple growth conditions in a in a single experiment,” said Steve Whitham, professor of plant pathology and microbiology, Iowa State University.
The Enviratron – along with researchers - are lifting the veil on factors that could impact the future of farming; research being done at Iowa State University.
“The main goal is to understand how plants perform under various environmental stresses,” said Whitham.
The Enviratron houses eight growth chambers which produce varying weather extremes.
“We're really interested in understanding how plants adapt and how they can respond - or be resilient - in response to two extremes that crops encounter every year during a growing season,” said Whitham.
From a growing understanding of how plants respond to various light and temperature extremes, the plants and researchers are trying to reap as much data as they can.
“We want to understand how plants will respond to higher co2 concentrations or how do they respond to higher temperatures and higher nighttime temperatures,” said Whitham. “All these different factors experts are predicting could happen in the future.”
The data is captured by one essential machine—a robot.
“During those experiments, we're using a robotic rover equipped with various sensors and cameras to collect image and phenotypic data on the plants as they grow,” said Whitham
Through four years of extensive testing, and multiple rounds of trial and error, the robot came to life; a creation produced by the University’s robotics team.
“It's been a lot of fun developing this project and seeing all the problems arise and how the robotics team is solved those and addressed those problems,” said Whitham.
One of those team members is a PhD student from China.
“We use a robot with a six-degree robot arm, so it allows flexible operations, like a scan from multiple views and angles,” said Lirong Xiang.
While the robot does the heavy lifting, the testing today is more short-term, looking at weather changes from one day to the next.
“With the Enviratron, we can look at these extreme scenarios,” said Whitham. “We can study different plant cultivars or different genotypes of plants, to identify those with the best properties when it comes to adapting or to extreme environments or recovering quickly from an extreme weather event.”
Testing adaptation and resilience from not only day to day, but in forecasting various weather scenarios that could play out 50 years into the future.
“We envision testing future climate scenarios in the facility,” said Whitham. “This will allow us to test elite varieties for say corn and soybean, we can test those under those conditions and see how they perform. Perhaps we could guide plant breeders in helping them to develop germplasm that could be responding well to these future scenarios.”
A project that started in 2014 is now gathering data that could help plants become more resilient to weather extremes, in turn, helping future farmers. Iowa State University hopes the lessons learned will extend way beyond the lab.