Calling in the plant doctor

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The Li-COR in action

Sometimes you really want to know how a plant is feeling. That’s when you call in The Plant Doctor!

The Plant Doctor is sitting next to me in the office and he knows a lot more diagnostic tools than the ‘I’ll-just-look-if-the-plant-is-there’-ecologist that I have traditionally been.

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I have to admit the latter has dramatically improved, and I can now call myself familiar with a ton of ecological measurement techniques – from fluorescence to root staining, yet this particular tool has always looked incredibly sofisticated and far beyond my reach: the Li-COR.

The idea is simple, though: the Li-COR measures photosynthesis, which is of crucial importance if one wants to know how well a plant is doing. In practice, though, it involves a lot of buttons to push, decisions to make (like: do we want to measure at the same levels of CO₂ as previous studies, the background levels in the field on the day itself, or the average value from Hawai’i accepted as ‘this year’s CO₂’?), and heavy equipment to take (like: how many kilos of batteries does this thing need to survive throughout the day?). Enough to walk around it up till now, but sometimes you really want to KNOW!

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Yet there is even more to this than just photosynthesis measurements: we can capture the air the Li-COR uses to measure photosynthesis (yes, we basically collect it into little baloons) and take it to the lab of The Plant Doctor. There, we can send the air through the even more complicated ‘PTR-TOF’ to measure so-called Volatile Organic Compounds; which is basically the smell of the plant, the molecules it emits. Some of these molecules will relate to its stress levels, and that is exactly what we are after: how happy are our plants, and what is driving their happiness levels?

So you can imagine I’m pretty excited for this new project, where finally, really, we’ll get to ask the plants themselves how they feel, instead of looking at them from afar, or using simple proxies.

Stay tuned for the results!

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