On Thursday, August 23, the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center and principal investigator Dr. Christopher Topp welcomed Dr. Warren Shafer of Valent BioSciences , Vijay Chauhan of BioSTL, and more than 200 members of the general public to the Conversations event, the "Nexus of Creative Science and the Marketplace."
Moderated by Chauhan, the discussion focused on new ways in which the Danforth Center has been able to partner with commercial entities toward the advancement of foundational science. Topp's laboratory work in the emerging science of plant roots, made possible through the assistance of Valent BioSciences, was held up as a model.
"Roots are the foundation of plant health-even Darwin was interested in them," said Topp, "But they have been hard to study without killing the plant until quite recently." In 2010, Topp learned about specialized 3D X-ray systems for very large objects used primarily in the aerospace industry. He realized right away this could revolutionize the study of plant roots, but "in order to get a grant, you need data. To get data, you need the machine. To get the machine, you need a grant. We were stuck in this loop."
Enter Valent BioSciences LLC, or VBC. VBC is a subsidiary of Sumitomo Chemical based in Libertyville, Illinois, that specializes in products derived from natural or biological origins with a goal of low environmental impact. VBC maintains a small research lab in BRDG Park on the Danforth Campus, and after VBC executives met with Danforth Center scientists in late 2015, the Danforth Center proposed a partnership.
"We saw right away that this emerging technology could help us evaluate new products. It's a win-win," said VBC's Shafer. "This program had wind in its sails from day one."
In August 2016, an eight-ton imaging system roughly the size of a large African elephant was delivered to the Danforth Center. The North Star Imaging X5000 offers 3D computed tomography of structures as small as 50 micrometers without damaging the plant. Keith Duncan, a top microscopist, formerly at Dow, oversees its use with a team of three.
Already the work is yielding results in the sphere of "rhizo-economics," the study of the microbial ecology fostered by plant root systems, including symbiotic interactions of mycorrhizal fungi. "We can now see the subterranean world nondestructively. We can see the effects of drought and other stressors. We can see how different treatments lead to changes in root system growth," said Topp.
The eye-popping 3D imagery generated by the machine has another impact as well: "We've developed a virtual reality tour of a plant's root system-a worm's-eye view, if you like," said Topp. "It's called 'Get Rooted.' We use it for science education outreach in partnership with the St. Louis Science Center to turn kids on to the wonders of plant science."
At the networking reception in the McDonnell International Gallery prior to the Conversation, visitors were invited to try on the latest augmented reality / virtual reality (AR/VR) technology to experience this "worm's-eye view" using imaging from Dr. Topp's laboratory.
Plants hold the key to ensuring a sustainable future, with enough food, fuel and ample renewable resources for all. In addition, they help maintain clean water, healthy soil and improve the quality of air that we breathe. At the Danforth Center, we are working to develop more productive, resilient plants for a better future for generations to come.
The Conversations Series is organized by members of the Danforth Center Friends Committee, offering the general public an opportunity to learn about the work of the Center and the partners who help to sustain it. Everyone is invited to join the conversation online and submit questions to the panel by tweeting @DanforthCenter using the hashtag #ConvoStL.