AgTech : Visualization of roots in soil is facilitated by Firefly protein

A team led by Carnegie's José Dinneny allows researchers to study the dynamic growth of root systems in soil. Roots remain one of the most mysterious parts of the plant. They cannot easily be studied since they grow hidden in soil.

The team's imaging system is called GLO-Roots (for Growth and Luminescence Observatory for Roots). It is an integrated platform for growing plants in soil in custom-built vessels, imaging roots using bioluminescence, and analysing root growth, architecture and gene expression using software designed in collaboration with Guillaume Lobet at the University of Liège.

The GLO-Roots system involved the genetic engineering of plants to produce an enzyme from fireflies called luciferase, which causes them to glow in the dark of the soil. Light-sensitive cameras then detect the light emitted by the roots and allow researchers to discriminate between the roots and the surrounding soil.

Using multiple genetically encoded luciferases, each one emitting light of a different wavelength, the team was able to simultaneously track whole root system architecture and the gene expression of adult plants.

The Dinneny lab used GLO-Roots to study the response of roots to environmental stresses relevant to sustainable agriculture. Understanding how root architecture is altered by environmental conditions and stresses can teach scientists how plants adapt to their surroundings and also about the genetic and biochemical activities underlying these adaptive processes.

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