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Danforth Center, Valent Partner on Underground Plant Imaging

Roots and soil microbes

Roots with soil microbes (Stephen Temple, New Mexico State University, USDA)

13 July 2016. A plant science center and crop science company are developing a large-scale X-ray imaging system to measure root development in plants. Financial aspects of the agreement between Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis and Valent Biosciences in Libertyville, Illinois were not disclosed.

The Danforth Center is a not-for-profit institute studying plant science. In June, researcher Chris Topp received a 4-year, $1.43 million grant from National Science Foundation to study root systems of maize — the formal name for corn — including development of advanced imaging technologies to better track root system development. The new agreement with Valent BioSciences, a subsidiary of Sumitomo Chemical Company in Tokyo, supplements the NSF award.

Topp’s lab studies root growth dynamics, especially the response to environmental stresses like drought and competition underground for nutrients. Its work includes development of better technologies to measure and document root system architecture, including computational biology and quantitative genetics, as well as advanced imaging technologies: X-rays, optical, and CT and PET scanning.

Valent BioSciences specializes in biorational products, defined as structurally similar and functionally identical to a biologically occurring substances, whether biologically derived or synthetic. Among its products are those addressing the rhizosphere, the biochemical interactions between roots and soil. In 2015, the company acquired Mycorrhizal Applications Inc., a producer of fungal spores to improve soil health and increase plants’ nutrient and water uptake.

The NSF award calls for Topp and colleagues to investigate root systems of maize, called the “hidden half” of plants, where water and nutrients are acquired. Root systems of maize are considered superior in acquiring nitrogen, and the project proposes applying technologies from medicine and industry, including X-ray and optical imaging, to document and measure the root architecture of maize.

In their joint project, Valent and the Danforth Center are expected to develop a large-scale X-ray imaging system for non-invasive root measurements, which the partners say will be the first system of its kind dedicated to academic plant science. Up to now, plant scientists had to take plants out of the ground to observe root systems.

In addition to the imaging project, Valent and the Danforth Center are collaborating in SyMyco Inc., a joint venture to improve and restore natural fungi that improve root system performance.

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