Medicine, Materials, Energy and Environment
University of Regina physicisist Zisis Papandreou positions a plant between the PhytoPET's detectors.

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Changing the scope of plant research in Saskatchewan

Saskatchewan researchers now have access to new technology that has the potential to change the province’s landscape when it comes to plant research.

Today, researchers unveiled the PhytoPET, a new real-time imaging detector used to study plants under different conditions.

It works like a computerized tomography (CT) scan, allowing researchers to delve deeper into how plants respond to a number of environmental stresses, from drought to infections, to insect infestations.

The project is the first of its kind in Canada. It’s a collaborative research effort involving the University of Regina, Sylvia Fedoruk Canadian Centre for Nuclear Innovation, the University of Saskatchewan, Global Institute for Food Security (Saskatoon) and the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility in Newport News, Virginia.

The project was made possible as part of the $1.45 million investment in nuclear imaging technology made by the Fedoruk Centre made in September 2015, from funding it received from Innovation Saskatchewan.

“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.

The imaging tool, now on campus at the University of Regina, will be permanently housed at the Saskatchewan Centre for Cyclotron Sciences at the University of Saskatchewan where researchers will have access to the technology and train other scientists and students in its use. 

“Nuclear imaging using radioisotopes allows 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.”

The team will begin work by examining 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.  Additionally, detection systems are being developed to study the interaction between roots and beneficial microbes in the soil.

“This is transformative and has the potential to change plant research in Saskatchewan and globally in a most profound way. We’re taking a multi-disciplinary approach here which will be the key to the success of this,” says Dr. Zisis Papandreou, professor in the Department of Physics at the University of Regina and the principal investigator for the project.

This project was made possible thanks to support from Innovation Saskatchewan and the Fedoruk Centre.

Read the full story by the University of Regina here.

Watch Zisis Papandreou explain how the PhytoPET works here.