"It's really welcome back to the future," Kahn said. "For thousands of years, people have evaluated the utility of a plant by looking at it to assess things like fruit and kernel size and color - all the things that make a crop plant desirable. That's sort of what we're doing here" - he gestured at the flashing contraption - "but now we're able to optically screen a large number of plants for specific traits."

The phenomics instrument works by emitting brief, bright flashes of light at plants in a dark growth room and then photographing the fluorescence the plants re-emit as a result. This fluorescence is a byproduct of photosynthesis. Chlorophyll in the leaves absorbs the flashes of light and then discharges the excess light energy.

Fluorescence is one of the ways that plants defend themselves, since too much light energy can cause damage. A great deal can be learned by measuring the re-emission rate, because different individuals of the same species of plant can re-emit light at different rates. And the same plant may re-emit light differently at different times of day or under different growth conditions.

Improving plant efficiency

This variation interests Kahn and other scientists at WSU, including his colleagues Helmut Kirchhoff, Asaph Cousins, Michael Neff and Gerry Edwards. Photosynthesis is poorly understood, but we do know that, at most, plants only capture about one percent of the energy available to them.

"Imagine if we could get plants to be more efficient in turning that energy into more plant. We might be able to turn that into higher yields of food, into biofuel or into other valuable products," Kahn said.

This is new territory, but the WSU scientists are optimistic that their work will pay off.

"A lot of what we do at WSU, including this kind of research focused on basic plant biology and understanding photosynthesis, is trying to grasp how plants do what they do," Kahn said. "We are trying to stay ahead of the curve and give producers options for the future.

"We've got a growing population, a changing climate, a shifting water supply - all of these things mean producers need science at their backs to help them evaluate their options as they go forward,” he said.

"We've got to eat! Looked at over centuries, getting enough to eat has rarely been easy,” Kahn said. "And looking forward, it is going to take a lot of innovating to keep up."