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Plant calorimeter may pick top crops.

Plant calorimeter may pick top crops

A new, speedy device that measures a plant's metabolic rate may improve on today's time-consuming methods for developing hardier crops. The machine, a novel form of calorimeter, can provide information in an hour for predicting a tree's growth rate over the next 40 years, say scientists who adapted the instrument for such studies. In addition, they say, the calorimeter can indicate a young plant's ability to withstand acid rain, herbicides and other hardships.

Currently, plant breeders seeking strong crops must watch and wait during the early stages of plant growth, selecting the fastest-growing plants and those holding up best to frost or heat. This task is eased by the calorimeter, which measures heat produced during metabolic activity, say Richard Criddle of the University of California, Davis, Lee Hansen of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, and their colleagues. Calorimeters built over the past few years can precisely measure the heat of crumb-size samples of cells and tissues under varying environmental conditions. Criddle and his colleagues hold that metabolic rate determines a plant's growth rate -- a debatable point among plant biologists, who have traditionally correlated photosynthetic rate with growth.

To test the value of calorimetry for predicting growth, Criddle's group recorded the metabolism of pieces of carrots, tomatoes and other plants, as well as samples from several types of trees. They then compared those readings with the intact plants' known growth rates. The calorimetric recordings for the samples, they say, correlated with the growth rates of the intact plants. Their findings on tomatoes and carrots are scheduled to appear in PLANT, CELL AND ENVIRONMENT.

As for hardiness, the researchers say plants whose metabolic rates remain stable when subjected to stresses in the lab will similarly tolerate those conditions in the field. So far, they have identified several varieties of barley that thrive in highly salty environments, a common product of irrigation.

Before farmers and foresters base agricultural decisions on calorimetry readings, they will need to see further tests of the new device. "The technique has potential for being a very valuable tool," says Donald Fowler of the Canadian Forestry Service in Fredericton, New Brunswick, who supplied samples of trees for the studies, "but I find it surprising that a single measure would provide enough information for strain selection."
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Author:Hendricks, Melissa
Publication:Science News
Date:Sep 17, 1988
Words:383
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