House Warming

House Warming

Maybe it’s caught your eye: a little glass hut atop the new Yale Science Building that glows orange in the winter dusk. It’s not just a fancy solarium or an architectural flourish. It’s a state-of-the-art greenhouse, where biology faculty are getting ready to move their experimental plants into six climate-controlled bays.

Vivian Irish, chair of the Department of Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, and her colleague Josh Gendron, an assistant professor, pull open the heavy door to the fifth-floor facility and step into a hallway lined with big, humming control boxes. The air feels different in here—a little bit humid, a little bit warmer. The greenhouse’s glass is frosted, which evens out the natural light pouring in and, unlike regular glass, lets in 100% of light wavelengths, including ultraviolet radiation. Supplemental lighting and shades make this greenhouse more flexible than its older sisters down at Marsh Botanical Garden. “We can make the day four hours long if we wanted to,” Gendron says.

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FACTORY at the New Haven Museum

Light isn’t the only variable that interests plant scientists like Irish and Gendron. Inside each of the greenhouse’s enclosed bays, the climate can be set to whatever temperature and humidity researchers desire. Even the gas content of the air can be controlled. For example, Gendron says, the effects of climate change 100 years from now could be mimicked. Scientists can also simply let in outside air and light to find out how the current climate might affect plants in the greenhouse. Insect screening ensures that no pests will come in with the rest of the great outdoors.

Irish has already moved some of her citrus plants into the high-ceilinged space—tall enough to accommodate the trees they’ll eventually become. They’re her “canary in a coal mine” plants, taking a trial run to see how the environment, which is still being calibrated, suits them. They’ve just been watered with a specific cocktail of nutrients—not showered from an overhead sprinkler system but pumped up from a reservoir to fill the grooved table they sit on. The plants drink from the bottom up, and when their meal is done, the water drains back into the reservoirs.

But as cool (or hot) as the new greenhouse is, Irish and Gendron actually seem more excited to show off their new walk-in grow rooms on the floor below. A whiteboard on the door of each of these 14 rooms notes the conditions being maintained inside: “Long Day 8am-12am 22C/60%RH,” reads one. These facilities replace two rooms the department had in their old building, which were constantly breaking down and wreaking havoc with faculty research. Irish pulls one door open to reveal a brightly lit space the size of a large closet with shelves of plants on either side. The room’s fan drones loudly as she points out the array of Arabidopsis, a weed that serves as a plant science workhorse. Here, it can be found at every stage of growth from just seeded to barely sprouting to tall and lanky and dropping seeds of its own, which will be collected to begin the process all over again. “It’s a small weed,” Irish says. “We can grow a lot of it in a small space. It has a real quick generation time, about five weeks from seed to seed… It’s a good proxy for all of these other… agriculturally important species that people want to know more about but are not so amenable for lab work.” In other words, researchers can try out mutations in Arabidopsis before applying them to other plants.

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Lisa Miller at Trinity Church on the Green

For Irish, those other plants include the citrange she’s growing up in the new greenhouse, a citrus plant mainly used as rootstock by commercial growers. Her initial interest in them was not their roots, though, or even their fruits but rather their thorns. “We’ve learned a lot about how the plant grows through working on thorns, and now we can actually manipulate the plant so that instead of making thorns, we can make branches. So we can change the architecture of the plant,” Irish explains. Eventually, her lab also figured out how to force earlier flowering in citrus plants, which is useful for breeding new varieties of citrus more rapidly. The trait that makes the plant flower faster can then be crossbred out again, Irish says.

All of this work began as a theoretical exercise—pure science. “We’re really basic research scientists trying to understand things like growth, development, responses to stresses, things like that,” Irish says. “But all of that plays into, you know, are you going to have orange juice on your table next year?” That’s a serious question because over the past 15 years, 60 percent of Florida’s citrus crop has been devastated by Huanglongbing disease, or HLB. “If you live in Florida, you know this,” Irish says, “because everybody’s going out of business. And so people’s livelihoods are at stake.”

Gendron pulls another door open, and the odor of a fish oil-based fertilizer wafts into the hall. Some of his research, too, turns out to have practical applications—for climate change. He studies the biological timers in plants, which tell them when to turn on dormancy in the winter and how to store energy. “The problem with climate change is that what the plants are doing is they’re measuring the length of the day to gauge what the temperature is going to be,” Gendron explains. “As the days get shorter, they start to turn on things like cold response genes so that they’re ready for the cold weather. But now it’s not as cold anymore.” One result is that non-native species, some of which make decisions by temperature instead, keep growing and therefore colonize areas they wouldn’t have before.

Also included in the new science building are 15 “reach-ins”—like big climate-controlled refrigerators—that replace just three the department had in its old building. Taken together with spacious open labs, roomy “head houses” (where plants can be organized and potted) and, not least of all, an incredible view of both East Rock and a ribbon of Long Island Sound, the Yale Science Building is “just wonderful,” Irish says. It’s part of a longer-term project on Science Hill that will bring together the school’s three biology departments—Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology; Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry; and Ecology & Evolutionary Biology—with numerous other science departments. They’ll share a new pavilion-style cafeteria and a courtyard on the roof of the underground science library.

Irish’s department hopes eventually to offer public events in the new greenhouse just as it does at the Marsh greenhouses, which will continue to be home to the department’s teaching collection of plants and some research. Until then, most of us will have to be content with looking up at its zig-zagging roofline and icy white walls and imagining what mysteries are growing inside.

Yale Science Building Greenhouse
260 Whitney Ave, New Haven (map)

Written and photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1 features Vivian Irish.

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