Brown Welcomes New Greenhouse For Plant Research

Dec 26, 2013

The New Year is set to usher in a new era of plant research at Brown University with a new greenhouse atop the renovated Building for Environmental Research and Teaching (BERT).

The new greenhouse, formally known as the Plant Environmental Center (PEC), gives university researchers the ability to grow and study plants in multiple environments, allowing plant researchers to study the effects of climate change on plants. For the first time, researchers will be able to simulate various environmental conditions, such as high temperatures and droughts.

“It will allow people working in multiple disciplines, so molecular biologists, ecologists, evolutionary biologists, people studying climate change to work together in an interdisciplinary environment in this building that will allow us to do new types of research that we haven’t been able to do before,” said Mark Johnson, associate biology professor and faculty director of the greenhouse.

Johnson said this will help researchers understand how plants respond and adapt to changing environments. For example, Johnson studies plant reproduction. The new greenhouse will enable him to better understand how warming temperatures affect food crops, such as corn and rice.

“What we’re starting to learn is that reproductive phase is one of the most sensitive phases to high temperature,” said Johnson. “So as the climate changes, plant reproduction is becoming a pinch point where productivity is being affected.”

With this new facility, researchers can control temperature, lighting, and humidity in six separate research rooms.

A classroom, a plant prep room, and growth chambers are located at the basement of the BERT building. Greenhouse manager Chris Claussen said some of these growth chambers are so sophisticated that researchers can program and run climate and weather data from previous years, or even increase carbon dioxide levels.

The greenhouse also features a conservatory, where people can take guided tours, giving researchers a way to interact with the general public around issues of plant biology.

“If the United States is really going to take on trying to address the climate change issue and really address the role that plants can play in understanding climate change and also meeting the needs, for example food production as the climate changes, then all people are going to have to understand more about plants and the critical role they play in the environment,” said Johnson.

Just like in the old greenhouse, the conservatory will house a rich range of unusual, exotic plants found mostly in rainforests.

“A lot of them are plants I’ve collected over the years,” said Fred Jackson, PEC director. “[They are] unusual plants. I try to get as much biodiversity as I possibly can [with] a lot medicinal plants, ethno-botanical plants, carnivorous plants, things that people would not ordinarily see at a plant store, totally unusual [plants].”

The conservatory opens in late January.

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