Seeing green at York — watching research grow

(Some of York”s plant scientists at York”s new Plant Growth Facility, from left: Davood Khosravani, Glen Marlok, Tracey Etwell, Tom Prakocevic, Nadia Iannette and Kathi Hudak)

Get rid of those winter blues: see some green at York. The York community is invited to visit the University’s new smart-technology facility – the Plant Growth Facility. Come and meet some of York”s plant scientists, who will be there to talk with interested visitors on Wednesday, Feb. 19, from 12 – 3pm in the Farquharson Building.

The following account was sent by Prof. Roger Lew, Biology Department, Faculty of Pure & Applied Science.

The Plant Growth Facility is a brand new “smart-technology” facility, housing both the teaching collection for the Biology Department, Faculty of Pure & Applied Science, and plants used for research.

It is equipped with a weather station that anticipates changes in conditions outside. Climatic control systems (shading, heating, cooling and ventilation) all respond accordingly to assure plants are growing under optimal conditions. Beneath the greenhouse is a basement containing plant growth incubators, which are used for precise control of environmental conditions.

The plants housed in the facility are studied in a variety of research projects funded by federal and provincial funding agencies.

Some of the research projects focus on local issues, such as seed banks in provincial parks. These banks contain seeds which remain dormant in the soil for long periods of time, germinating when vegetation is disturbed by, for example, fire or clear cutting. They are believed to be important in the aggressive invasion of natural habitats by foreign, exotic species.

(Glen Marlok, left, and Roger Lew)

Other research focuses on plant sexual reproductive strategies, that is, how plants maintain genetic diversity from one generation to the other. In other instances, researchers use the greenhouse to maintain plants for experimental work in laboratories.

For example, lily (Lilium) is cultivated, not for the beauty of the flowers, but for studies on pollen growth during pollination. Ferns (Ceratopteris) are cultivated to maintain a steady supply of spores for studies of how light affects morphogenesis (light-induced changes in the form of the plant). Pokeweed is soon to be cultivated for harvest, to isolate anti-viral proteins. As well, protoplasts generated from plant cells are used to study the replication of agriculturally important plant viruses.

Many successful biotechnological applications have involved plants. One notable example is the production of high-quality oil in canola, itself a product of plant breeding in Canada. A great deal of research is underway to genetically engineer plants to produce pharmaceuticals, such as anti-cancer drugs, and to modify the crops we grow to improve their nutrient value.

Although the plant scientists at York are involved in basic research on the growth and metabolism of the plant, their work forms the foundation of applied science: the development of economically useful plants for mankind.