Root Imaging SystemThe imaging system helps collect data on the growth of plants. | photo contributed by Samuel McInturf.

By Lauren Hines | Bond LSC

In a corner of the David Mendoza lab, a small machine runs back and forth across a track, taking pictures continuously of plants grown in clear square plates. This machine not only saves time during data collection but also helps the lab track the growth of plants in real time.

After almost five years of development, the Mendoza lab has reached the final stretch in their robotic endeavors. Now, they’re putting finishing touches on the machine and getting a scientific article together to be submitted fin a peer reviewed journal.

“A few years back, we realized that our phenotyping methods were insufficient to capture subtle changes, things that aren’t just screamingly obvious, and although small, they’re very important,” said Samuel McInturf, a molecular biologist who is part of David Mendoza’s lab. “So, I set out and learned a whole bunch of stuff about robotics.

The project idea came into being in 2015 and transformed itself into a bioengineering senior capstone class where Mendoza, McInturf and many students from bioengineering, computer science and computer engineering worked on creating different prototypes of this idea.

“We are rapidly moving into a phase of a modular revolution, where our older methods, such as phenotyping by eye, aren’t really going to be sufficient,” McInturf said. “So, these machines represent a transition into mechanization or automation of our current methodologies.”

In addition to making the lab more efficient, the machine makes experiments more reliable.

“[The machine] really decreases the bias, decreases human intervention and increases the amount and quality of data that we are gathering,” said David Mendoza, associate professor in plant sciences and Bond LSC investigator.

Another benefit the robot offers to other labs is that it allows undergraduates to do more.

“[Undergrads] did a lot of repetitive tasks, but we are evolving as a society, so now you can teach them to do a lot of different assays and a lot of more complicated, sophisticated things using robotics,” said Ron Mittler, professor of plant sciences and Bond LSC investigator. “So, I look into this as a big advantage, actually.”

Now that the robot has proved effective, the next step is to share it with others. Last summer, McInturf and others flew to Africa to build a version of the robot for the University of the Western Cape in South Africa but wants labs at MU to use their work.

“The idea was to make the machines not just for us but for labs across the world,” said Landon Swartz, an undergraduate student researcher who is part of the project. “I’m hoping to see us be able to get machines out to other labs and just see how it affects their research and how much good can come from it.”

Soon to be one of their first users, Mittler needs the robot to help screen through the 1,000-3,000 plates his lab ends up with that need to be imaged, measured and processed to determine root growth and other parameters

“If you can optimize processes like that, then you can screen a lot of mutants,” Mittler said. “You can do a lot of different things that will take a lot of time and energy, and then you will not have to always spend power or time on data collection…That’s something that a lot of labs would have liked to have, including mine.”

Even though there’s a paper underway and labs are eager to get their own robot, the Mendoza lab isn’t yet finished with the project.

“Feels good to reach a benchmark,” McInturf said. “But there’s still so much more that we can expand upon.”

As of now, this particular machine is used to track the growth of roots and shoots of plants. However, the robot has potential to do even more.

“Now that we’ve developed all of this expertise, it’s relatively simple to add a heat sensitive camera, so we can see how active a plant’s metabolism is,” McInturf said. “Perhaps we could find a way to measure photosynthesis on the fly. Those types of expansions would be much more powerful.”

But for now, the Mendoza lab is busy writing manuscripts, doing proof of concept experiments and updating the software and user interface for the paper, which is scheduled to be submitted for review within the next few weeks.