Climate Lessons from Plants, Past to Future

Even though the Phytotron was created a long time ago, it is still state of the art today thanks to the amazing team who keeps it running.

We can control temperature, we can control various conditions of the air and the atmosphere, the humidity, and it really allows us to interrogate how plants can be resilient to adverse conditions.

Lucia Strader, professor of Biology
Rows of seedlings growing ion small plastic containers of dirt.
The Duke Phytotron allows researchers to grow plants in carefully controlled environments simulating future climate conditions. (John West/Trinity Communications)

“Duke actually had the one of the first phytotrons in the country,” said Sheng-Yang He, Benjamin E. Powell Distinguished Professor of Biology. “People were coming from different universities in the country to do their experiments at Duke, and that’s part of the reason why Duke is so famous for plant research. It trained generations of students who are now leaders in plant biology all over the world.”

An intricate pressed flower, photographed and technically cataloged. Dated 11 May, 1960
Specimens such as this Lady slipper’s orchid contain data crucial to our understanding of the impacts of climate change. (Duke Herbarium)

The Duke Herbarium precedes the Phytotron by a bit more than 40 years, but some of the specimens it holds are much, much older.

“When you go into the Herbarium and open a cabinet, you can be in 1789, or 1999,” said Kathleen Pryer, professor of Biology and director of the Duke Herbarium.

Pryer pulls a folder containing specimens of Lady slipper orchids in flower and points out how, by comparing the collection date and locality of those collected in the early 1900’s to those collected through the century since, one can quickly see that these orchids have been flowering much earlier in the year than they used to, a response to warming temperatures.

“People doing field studies now can go out and they may have 20 years of data, maybe 50 years of data, perhaps even 100 years of data, but you really can't beat the Herbarium for the kind of data that is locked up in here,” she says.

And “locked” isn’t the right word. A recent digitization grant from the National Science Foundation allowed high resolution images of these specimens to be produced and made available online to anyone in the world. Loans between institutions also give researchers access to the physical specimens, which are needed for studies requiring the extraction of DNA or chemical compounds.

Pryer and Windham hope that the Duke Climate Commitment will bring renewed attention to the collection. “These are invaluable resources,” said Pryer. “There is no better record of the climate of the past than a herbarium.”

People may not come from all over the world to use Duke’s Phytotron anymore, but it is still an invaluable resource for the region. Many biotechnology companies in the Research Triangle that work at the intersection of agriculture and climate solutions rely on it to conduct their experiments in extremely well-controlled conditions.

“If you think about herbaria, you can study how plants behaved in the past. Phytotrons are really the current and the future,” said He. But the future we are envisioning now is a bit different than the one envisioned when the Duke Phytotron was originally built.

“We could do even more if we had a better version of the Phytotron,” said He. “Fifty-five years ago, we were not predicting some of the conditions that we're experiencing now and that are in our future. Having a modernized facility would really allow us to stay at the forefront of the global fight against climate change.”

Correction: Since the filming of this video, Lucia Strader has been promoted to Professor of Biology.

Series: Campus as a Research Lab
A Climate Commitment Series

This series aligns with the Duke Climate Commitment, which unites the university’s education, research, operations and public service missions to address the climate crisis.