With an impish grin, Mike Kahn recently led a group of visitors into an old greenhouse on the Washington State University campus in Pullman. Kahn is a scientist in WSU's Institute of Biological Chemistry, home to a group of researchers probing the secrets of plant life to help ensure the world's burgeoning population has enough to eat.

"Welcome to the future," his expression seemed to say. Inside, the group of reporters and videographers was treated to a remarkable site: a boxy contraption moving over rows of small green plants, stopping at intervals and emitting flashes of colored light.

The contraption contains two cameras and literally looks at plants in a new way.

Too many gene possibilities

"In theory," Kahn said, "we can breed by following the genes that contribute to the development of desirable traits in a plant." "Desirable traits” is a sweeping term plant breeders use to describe everything from yield and size to disease- and drought-resistance.

"But for the foreseeable future, there is no technology that is going to get us to each gene, as there are on the order of 30,000 genes in each plant,” Kahn said. "That means there are a lot of possibilities. This is the problem breeders have. They need to sort through a lot of gene possibilities to find the ones they want.

"We are looking at plants in another way,” he said, "because there are certain things about the genes that can be evaluated by using cameras that can look at lots of whole plants rapidly and efficiently."

Genetics + environment = phenomics

Welcome to the new science of phenomics: the study of phenotypes, which are the observable characteristics of an organism.

The phenotype is the result of a complex relationship between the organism's genome - its specific set of inheritable characteristics - and its environment, which influences the expression of that genetic inheritance. Phenomics is critical because it connects the dots between an organism's genetic potential and how it actually performs in a specific environment.

Phenomics and the use of modern data acquisition technologies to describe many phenotypes simultaneously is in its infancy. WSU's phenomics center is one of a few in the world, and the light-and-camera instrument is the first of its type.

The WSU phenomics project pushes toward the breeders' goal of assessing a plant's genetics by actually subjecting plants to some of the environmental conditions growers and their crops are likely to encounter and measuring how they respond.