Campus News

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News Release

July 06, 2005

Plant Scientist Keeping Eye on Shuttle’s Return to Flight

A Canadian-made “eye” set to debut as a new safety feature on this month’s space shuttle flight — the first since the 2003 Columbia disaster — is being used by a University of Guelph plant scientist to study the growth and development of plants for applications here on Earth and, ultimately, during missions to the moon and Mars.

Prof. Bernie Grodzinski of the Department of Plant Agriculture, has used the fledgling 3-D laser scanner for more accurate, non-invasive studies of how plants grow. He has employed the device during the past year to obtain better three-dimensional diagnostics of plants. The data from the laser scanner are powerful because they can be used to link anatomical and physical changes such as plant size, and leaf growth to key metabolic processes such as gas exchange and the effects of disease stress on plant production, he said.

Using the laser technology as a diagnostic tool will ultimately benefit growers in agriculture and forestry, notably those in Canada’s greenhouse industry, worth about $1.5 billion a year, said Grodzinski. “We’re learning to use the plant as the primary sensor of its environment. The plant is a sensor, but it can’t talk. Even though it doesn’t speak, however, it can tell you what’s going on if you’re willing to understand its signals.” He plans to submit their current findings to a scientific journal this year.

The space vision system was developed by Ottawa’s Neptec Design Group Ltd., based on research conducted at the National Research Council of Canada. The diagnostic device was tested in 2001 aboard the space shuttle Discovery’s flight to the International Space Station. Described by the company as “NASA’s eyes in outer space,” the scanner will be mounted on the Canadarm during Discovery’s scheduled flight this month. It will allow astronauts to inspect hard-to-reach parts of the spacecraft’s exterior.

The Neptec Design Group is an industry partner of Grodzinski’s team that combines researchers at the University of Western Ontario, Queen’s and U of G on a three-year, $633,000 strategic grant from Science and Engineering Research Canada to study visionary and innovative new plant science technologies.

Grodzinski’s group is also building a new low temperature research facility as part of U of G’s Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility (CESFR). The new facility is Guelph’s contribution to a newly funded $28.6-million environmental research project called the Biotron to be built at the University of Western Ontario.

Currently, growth chambers in CESRF allow researchers to study plants subjected to a wide range of stresses, including low-pressure conditions being investigated for future space habitations. Grodzinski and Prof. Mike Dixon, chair of the Department of Environmental Biology, have been working with various space agencies on the use of plants for life support systems for space applications.

Prof. Bernie Grodzinski
Department of Plant Agriculture
519) 824-4120, Ext. 53439

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