As a postdoc, plant biologist Christopher Topp was not satisfied with the usual way of studying root development: growing plants on agar dishes and placing them on flatbed scanners to measure root lengths and angles.
Instead, he would periodically stuff his car with plants in pots dripping with water and drive more than 600 kilometres from North Carolina to Georgia to image his specimens in 3D, using an X-ray machine in a physics lab.
Related stories Plant-genome hackers seek better ways to produce customized crops Plant biology: Growth industry Five years later, the idea of using detailed imaging to study plant form and function has caught on.
The use of drones and robots is also on the rise as researchers pursue the ‘quantified plant’ — one in which each trait has been carefully and precisely measured from nearly every angle, from the length of its root hairs to the volatile chemicals it emits under duress.
Such traits are known as an organism’s phenotype, and researchers are looking for faster and more comprehensive ways of characterizing it.