East Campus Plant Growth Facility Tackles Issues like Global Hunger and Drought

East Campus Plant Growth Facility Tackles Issues like Global Hunger and Drought

Traveling east of the University of Missouri, you will come across a curvy road called East Campus Drive. After you pass the MU Veterinary Health Center, student dormitories, and parking lots you’ll come to the end of the road and discover a 41,000 square feet, hidden gem— The East Campus Plant Growth Facility.

The MU-funded facility offers a space for MU researchers from the colleges of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, Arts and Science, and Engineering to conduct plant research addressing issues such as global hunger and drought.

Rachel Mertz, post-doctoral student and research specialist, is a part of a 4-year NSF project called Physiological Genomics of Maize Nodal Root Growth under Drought or the Roots and Drought grant.

“We’re at that first stage of doing discovery work here,” said Mertz, “We’re identifying genes that have an effect and then publishing about them. Then, other researchers and companies will see those leads and keep them in mind when they’re looking for ways to improve root growth in maize.”

In November 2019, MU opened the state-of-the-art facility featuring 24 research greenhouses and cutting-edge, controlled-environment plant growth chambers. It also houses some of the tallest plant growth chambers in the world that allow corn to grow up to its full 12-foot height.

“In the field, I’d carry a step ladder. Literally, I’d tape a belt to a step stool and carry it on my back because I would go through hundreds of rows,” said Mertz. “In the greenhouse we have the luxury of being able to lay these things down to access the anther [the parts that hang from the tassel during pollination].”

Mertz highlighting the yellow anthers hanging from the tassel. (Photo by Michelle Lumpkins)

Before the East Campus Growth Facility opened, Mertz worked on the grant in the Sears Plant Growth Facility. However, it only contained half the amount of greenhouses and didn’t feature extended height growth chambers.

The ECPGF’s added features, including controlled lighting, temperature, humidity and CO2 environments, makes it easier to address challenges. For example, pollen is heat sensitive which creates obstacles for geneticists dealing with hybrid plants.

“We were really excited when this facility opened because it’s much taller than the Sears Plant Growth Facility and the lights are adjustable,” said Mertz. “We can keep them close to the canopy to help healthy plant growth and then raise them as the plants grow.”

When she first arrived at the Sears Plant Growth Facility, it wasn’t optimized for maize growth. Issues such as not making very good ears and ears not syncing with tassels held up many of their projects. Researchers depended on a good summer nursery to increase their seeds. However, the grant team faced challenges like flooding and bad summers which forced them to cram production into a tiny window.

“It is really gratifying to get to this stage, and see these things growing so well and yielding so well,” said Mertz. “It’s been very beneficial for all the different projects across the Braun and Sharp labs to be able to grow things effectively at the greenhouse.”

Rows of maize line the inside of the Robert E. Sharp Lab. (Photo by Michelle Lumpkins)

Although all of this work helps to build knowledge within the scientific community, the information flow doesn’t stop there. Every other year, researchers on the grant attend the Missouri State Fair in Sedalia and talk with farmers about their discoveries.

“Day to day it’s very much in the lab and making basic discoveries and then publishing them so that the broader community sees them and can think about whether they want to pull them into their own pipelines,” said Mertz. “All of this is just a foundation and you can’t build a house without a foundation. Without academic labs producing high quality basic research the products that depend on them don’t get made. It matters a lot to every phase of the process.”

For Mertz, her interest in plant science takes her back to her upbringing. She spent her childhood dragging her Fisher Price water wagon around her mother’s flowerbed and helping out on her family’s farm.

“It’s important to me to work on problems that matter. My grandparents were farmers. It feels good to be working on something at the early stages that might eventually provide a foundation of knowledge,” said Mertz. “ And will eventually end up in a product that will benefit farmers in Missouri and throughout the Midwest.”

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