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Bridging the gap between lab and field.

No matter whether one takes an agricultural, silvicultural or ecological perspective, the study of plant growth and performance in the field is challenging because of considerable short-term (hours to days) and mid-term (days to weeks) variability in environmental conditions.

Rationale
No matter whether one takes an agricultural, silvicultural or ecological perspective, the study of plant growth and performance in the field is challenging because of considerable short-term (hours to days) and mid-term (days to weeks) variability in environmental conditions. Plant biologists therefore often use growth chambers or glasshouses to study their plants under more controlled conditions, so that they are able to repeat experimental results and always have plants with well-defined characteristics available for their studies. However, to what extent do these plants still look like the plants that are grown in the field? This was the topic of a Tansley review that recently appeared.

LabFieldArabidopsis thaliana (Col-0) grown at the same time in a growth chamber (left) and outside, at similar daylength in Jülich. NB: pictures are not to scale. Photos and experiment: Shizue Matsubara

Key Results
• Plants in the lab generally have thinner leaves, higher nitrogen concentrations and faster growth rate. Lab experiments are much shorter, however, so at the end of the experiment , most lab plants are much smaller than plants that are used for experiments in the field.
• Plants in the lab are generally grown at lower light levels but higher temperatures than plants in the field. This is important as this is known to strongly affect the source:sink balance of the plant, and thereby their overall physiology.
• Lab-grown plants are often grown in potting soil, which is very different from the soil in the field, both in terms of physical characteristics, but also in microbial community, another important factor that influences plant performance.
• Last but not least, plants in the lab are grown at lower density than in the field, and in a 1-plant-1-pot approach even without root competition. That will also alter environmental conditions as well as the plant's phenotype.
• Our research showed that the average r2 for physiological measurements or growth of a range of species or genotypes in lab and field was 0.26. That implies that the correlation between lab and field is rather modest. Looking at the yield of genotypes of 12 crop species, measured in the same location at two consecutive years, we found the r2 to be 0.08, which was significantly less.

Implications
Possible ways to improve the translation from lab to field are:
• Grow plants in the lab at lower temperatures and/or higher light levels.
• Grow plants in the lab under diurnally changing conditions.
• Grow plants in the lab in large pots at more relevant plant densities.

Poorter et al. (2016) Pampered inside, pestered outside? Differences and similarities between plants growing in controlled conditions and in the field. New Phytologist 212: 838-855.


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