The University of California, Santa Barbara has high-tech research greenhouses that contain temperature and lighting control to create and maintain specific environmental conditions researchers need for experimental work.
The first of UCSB’s three facilities began with a gift from Barry Schuyler, an environmental studies professor, and his wife Jean Schuyler. With that facility in process, the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology (EEMB) Greenhouse Oversight Committee received a $1.7 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to complete the Schuyler greenhouse and to build two others, including an alpine greenhouse.
“We are really lucky to have this new greenhouse to conduct research in,” said Scott Hodges, a professor in the EEMB department. “There are seven different rooms inside the greenhouse, which allows us to have space to grow plants and conduct research on them, as well as adjust temperature conditions to fit their needs.”
Dr. Hodges, as well as other researchers, use the greenhouse to conduct research. Hodges and his postdoctoral associate Evangeline Ballerini grow columbines to study the genetic basis of nectar spurs, a recently evolved trait. It is an unusual trait because it causes the hollow tubes to fill with nectar and require pollinators to probe deeply to get to the sweet stuff. This had caused diversification of the genus.
“The new adaptation results in speciation and increased diversity,” said Hodges. “We also found that other groups evolved to grow nectar spurs that were independent of the columbines. In our lab, we took one species with no nectar spurs and crossed it with plants that had nectar spurs to create a hybrid population. Then we took those offspring and crossed them again to create a segregating population. By doing this, we are able to figure out what piece of DNA causes this gene.”
Hodges and Ballerini sequenced the genomes of hundreds of plants and found that a single place in the genome determines whether or not a plant develops nectar spurs. Ballerini’s ongoing work seeks to identify the gene and determine how it has evolved to allow spurs to develop.
“The new greenhouse makes this type of research possible,” said Hodges. “The old greenhouses we had didn’t allow for this research because hummingbirds and bees could get inside and pollinate plants. Additionally, there’s a lot more space so we were able to grow hundreds of plants and monitor the conditions, including the temperature and light, they receive to grow.”
UCSB’s alpine greenhouse is unique, not only to Santa Barbara but also on the West Coast and even throughout the country. The greenhouse enables researchers to change the temperature according to the plant they are growing without the expense of cooling the entire greenhouse.
During the construction of the greenhouses, The Green Initiative Fund at UCSB provided student-generated funds to pay for 300-watt LED grow lights. These lights, made possible by the blue LEDs for which UCSB’s Shuji Nakamura won the 2014 Nobel Prize, use 70 percent less electricity than traditional grow lights. The energy efficiency also eliminates the middle portion of the visible light spectrum (yellow and green light) and generate red and blue light that most plants favor. This explains why the greenhouses glow purple at night.
“The new greenhouse allows for fine climate control, so plants can grow in different environments depending on what you are growing,” said Hodges. “Since there is a lot more space, it allows for more flexibility to grow multiple plants in different climates at the same time.”