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Novel use of laser technology reveals interactions between roots, soil organisms

Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A novel use of a custom laser system — developed in Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences eight years ago — allows researchers to see how soil organisms affect plant roots. The discovery has implications for future breeding of more resilient and productive crops, according to an international team of scientists.

“This research shows how we can use laser ablation tomography — often referred to as LAT — to visualize the anatomy of roots from several crop species, and see how soil organisms such as fungi, herbivorous nematodes and insects interact with these roots in three dimensions,” said Jonathan Lynch, distinguished professor of plant science.

Lynch’s research group developed the unique technology in 2011 for other root-analysis applications in collaboration with Ted Reutzel, with Penn State's Applied Research Laboratory, and current LAT entrepreneur Ben Hall of Lasers for Innovative Solutions (L4IS). Lynch explained that researchers using LAT can measure the light spectra given off by different cells cut by the laser to differentiate between various tissues. This differentiation is based on the cells' chemical composition.

“LAT not only can provide us with a novel perspective of interactions among roots and soil organisms, but we also are able to process many root samples in a short period of time with this technology,” he said. “That high throughput rate addresses a major limitation for other researchers who are interested in conducting genetic studies and running breeding programs to develop crops that are more resistant to soil pathogens.”

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