Imaging tool to change scope of plant research in Saskatchewan

By Costa Maragos Posted: January 25, 2017 12:00 p.m.

(l-r) Dr. Zisis Papandreou, U of R Physics; Dr. Drew Weisenberger, Jefferson Lab; Matt Dalzell, Fedoruk Centre; Jeremy Harrison, Minister responsible for Innovation Saskatchewan and Dr. David Malloy, Vice-President (Research) at the U of R.
(l-r) Dr. Zisis Papandreou, U of R Physics; Dr. Drew Weisenberger, Jefferson Lab; Matt Dalzell, Fedoruk Centre; Jeremy Harrison, Minister responsible for Innovation Saskatchewan and Dr. David Malloy, Vice-President (Research) at the U of R. Photo by Rae Graham – U of R Photography.

The Department of Physics in collaboration with the Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation is leading a major project with the potential to revolutionize plant research.  

The PhytoPET, a real-time imaging detector used to study plants under different conditions, is now on campus. This project, the first of its kind in Canada, has been made possible thanks to a $1.45 million contribution from the Fedoruk Centre, which in turn is funded by Innovation Saskatchewan.

Jeremy Harrison, Minister responsible for Innovation Saskatchewan, speaking with Dr. Drew Weisenberger (Jefferson Lab) and Dr. Zisis Papandreou (U of R Physics) about the PhytoPET (lower right) - a small but sophisticated piece of scientific equipment that can study plants in different conditions. U of R Photography

“In our Saskatchewan Plan for Growth, we highlight our government’s goal to show leadership through new research in nuclear medicine, nuclear materials science and other areas,” says Jeremy Harrison, Minister Responsible for Innovation. “This is why we are pleased to fund innovative projects and research and development institutions like the Fedoruk Centre – to advance our province and ultimately create a better quality of life for All Saskatchewan people.”

The detector, a key tool in a unique plant molecular research platform anchored on nuclear imaging technologies, will add a new dimension to the power of genomics through the emerging field of “digital agriculture.”  The complete arsenal of technologies is essential to accelerate crop selection and breeding, and to explore ways to help plants adapt to the stresses of higher temperatures and declining water levels.

“Nuclear imaging using radioisotopes allow researchers to see biological processes in living things. While the technique has been used in nuclear medicine for some time, using it to understand how plants grow and respond to their environment is new,” says Dr. Kevin Schneider, Interim  Executive Director of the Fedoruk Centre and Associate Vice-President of Research at the University of Saskatchewan.

“Having access to a detector means that we are able to study plant growth and development in a way that can only be done in few places around the world; it is a powerful new tool that will help us to better understand how to develop crops and contribute to global food security," he says.

The imaging tool will permanently operate in the Saskatchewan Centre for Cyclotron Sciences in Saskatoon, where researchers from the University of Saskatchewan, University of Regina, the Global Institute for Food Security and elsewhere in Canada will have access to the technology and train other scientists and students in its use.

The research team will first study Saskatchewan-grown lentils. Saskatchewan grows about half of the world's supply of lentils. Photo courtesy of Saskatchewan Pulse Growers

 “We feel this is transformative research that has the potential to change plant research in Saskatchewan and globally in a most profound way,” says Dr. Zisis Papandreou, professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Regina and principal investigator for the project.

“We’re taking a multi-disciplinary approach here which will be the key to the success of this. As just one example, we see researchers from physics, biology and computer science working side by side. Such collaborations have the potential to produce much more comprehensive results,” he says.

 The PhytoPET was developed at the Jefferson National Lab in Newport News, Virginia. The lab has worked closely over the years with the U of R’s Department of Physics.
“I’m very excited about our collaboration with the University of Regina and the Fedoruk Centre,” says Dr. Drew Weisenberger, a nuclear physicist at the Jefferson National Lab, who leads the team that invented the PhytoPET. “I have been developing radioisotope detectors for plant biology research at Duke University for several years and look forward to new opportunities with researchers.”

The initial plan is for the team to examine lentils; Saskatchewan’s lentil crop accounts for about half of the world’s production. With lentils, and eventually other crops, researchers will be able to determine the stresses plants endure as the climate changes and levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increase.  
collaborative research group
This collaborative research has brought together researchers from the Departments of Physics and Biology. U of R Photography

The PhytoPET can detect how plants respond to a number of environmental stresses, from drought to infections to insect infestations.  Detection systems are being developed in parallel to study the interaction between roots and beneficial microbes in the soil.

This is critical research as the world population is expected to reach approximately 9.6 billion by 2050, adding pressure to developed nations to increase their yields per hectare by 70 per cent, according to the Global Institute for Food Security.
Dr. Zisis Papandreou provides an overview of how the PhytoPET works and the potential to transform agriculture in Saskatchewan.