With Earth’s population is expected to hit over nine million by 2050, it’s impossible not to ask how will farmers be able to produce enough food when the amount of farmable land is dwindling.

Professor Jim Whelan.
Photo: La Trobe University

One answer to develop a better understanding of how plants grow and which plant type is best suited to which environment.

Professor Jim Whelan and his team at La Trobe’s Institute for Agriculture and Food have been studying plant phenology, which is the physical expression of a plant’s genome.

“We need to have growth traits to match with the genetic traits and we can’t get that by just looking at them with our naked eye,” Professor Whelan said.

“If we build a container or box, and put a camera, or two or three, or whatever we want in it, we can watch plants growing by the hour and calculate that down to very small increments.”

While there are large testing facilities in Australia that allow scientists and researchers to phenotype a plant, the cost of using one can be prohibitive which is a block to research being conducted.

Through a Global Connections grant, Professor Whelan and his team collaborated with Czech Republic-based Photon System Instruments to build a tool called a Mendel Cube.

The Mendel Cube is essentially a small-scale version of the large research facilities and is targeted specially at education as a tool to help train the next generation of phenotyping researchers.

Through phenotyping, researchers can discover not only which plants will succeed in an area but which particular plant would be the best to breed from.

“Rather than just picking the best individual by eye, which as humans we’re not good at, we will have data, reproducible data that will be able to say, ‘okay, this is why we think this is the best individual for this’ and we can test that,” Professor Whelan said.

He also sees broader applications for the technology including a hand-held version that will use already collected data to tell farmers when a crop is at its optimum for harvesting.

It also has some potential to reduce the amount of pesticides and chemicals used on crops by using the same technology to observe crop as they grows.

Having already established a relationship with Photon System Instruments through other small projects, Professor Whelan and his team were able to use the entire grant to fund the building of prototype Mendel Cube.

The experience led to Photon System Instruments establishing an Australian base at La Trobe University’s Technology Park and Professor Whelan expects that they’ll be collaborating on many more projects with the company in the future.

“It’s not a direct outcome of the grant but it’s one of the reasons that they set up here was because they thought that was a good experience,” he said.

Profile of Professor Whelan written for the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering as part of a review of their Global Connections Grant.