Center helps scientists measure light to find mutations

By Scott Weybright, College of Agricultural, Human & Natural Resource Sciences

False-color-80PULLMAN, Wash. – Plants use light during photosynthesis. But they also give off light, though in amounts so small we can’t see it. The amount of light changes based on the plant’s environment and genetic makeup.

Scientists at WSU’s Phenomics Center can see this light, or fluorescence, measure it and use it to identify genetic mutations in plants. The center is now available to researchers on campus and beyond.

Though the center has been working with WSU researchers since 2011 – see earlier article at – technicians and managers are ready to offer analytical services to scientists from other universities and research centers.

Wholesale scanning saves time

“This facility should really help anybody studying plants,” said Helmut Kirchhoff, assistant professor in WSU’s Institute of Biological Chemistry and the facility’s manger. “We can screen a large number of plants under controlled conditions and do it fairly quickly.”

Wheat plants under colored light in the WSU Phenomics Center. The light stimulates a photosynthetic reaction in each plant, which can be measured to produce useful data for researchers.

The lab can measure how a plant handles drought or other stress, detect genetic mutations and determine their effects.

“We don’t work on a molecular level,” Kirchhoff said. “We look at the plant as a whole and work non-invasively by using optical screening techniques. It saves a great deal of time for researchers who don’t have to do thorough genetic testing on all their plants to find what they’re looking for.”

The process reduces scientific bottlenecks. For example, researchers may want to study a particular mutation in wheat. But they would have to do genetic testing on many plants just to find the few that have the mutation they’re looking for.

Phenomics Center equipment can detect the mutation in less than a week without the expensive tests, according to scientific assistant Magnus Wood. After he programs an experiment’s protocols in the computer, which can take some time, the rest of the process is mostly automatic.

“It can even be checked remotely via a smartphone,” he said. “It works really well.”

Demand fuels expansion move

The lab works like a small greenhouse – around four meters by five meters in size. A robot overhead moves scaffolding to scan the plants. The robot shines various colored lights on each plant and then measures the plant’s fluorescent reaction. See a short video of the process at

This false color image shows the differences in fluorescence that the phenomics cameras see when they scan plants.

The light reactions have tiny variations, which provide information that can tell which plants have the mutation a researcher is looking for.

“We call it a mutant hunt,” Kirchhoff said.

The center can, for example, have 50 wheat plants and place them under drought conditions. The equipment then measures how those plants conduct photosynthesis under such stress.

The machine uses two cameras, a high-quality digital camera and a fluorescence camera that measures photosynthesis.

So far, the center has worked with researchers studying wheat, tobacco, tomatoes and poplar trees, among other plants.

“It’s very flexible,” Kirchhoff said. “We’re excited about it and it’s been booked consistently since we opened it up to other scientists.”

He said the plan is to move the facility to a bigger space that can handle more than the current 200 plants.

For more information, or to book time in the facility, visit


Helmut Kirchhoff, WSU Phenomics Center,, 509-335-3304
Scott Weybright, WSU CAHNRS communications,, 509-335-2967