French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA)

The second half of my sabbatical has brought us to Dijon, France, where I’ve been working with colleagues at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA). INRA is akin to our USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) and has research facilities all across France. My host here is Dr. Stephane Cordeau, pictured below standing in a mixture of wheat and peas at INRA’s research farm.


Stephane and I met several years ago while he was in the US working with my colleague Matt Ryan at Cornell University.  Stephane and I have similar research interests. Here at INRA, Stephane and his colleagues are in the process of transitioning the fields (like those pictured below) at their research farm into a new long-term research platform for studying agroecology at the systems and landscape scales. You can read more about the objectives of the project here.


The fields of the research farm are not the only locations where INRA scientists do their work. The INRA facility in Dijon also includes an extensive greenhouse facility. The picture below is of an experiment being conducted by Dr. Delphine Moreau. She is examining how weed growth is affected by light limitation and nitrogen availability. The green netting on the left part of the picture is shade cloth Delphine is using to reduce light levels. The nutrient solutions are being delivered from the green tubs in the middle of the picture.


INRA is also involved in a legume breeding program. Here are a number of different pea varieties growing on trellises in the greenhouse. It’s like a forest of peas!


Perhaps one of the more impressive things I’ve seen for a while is INRA’s new High-Throughput Phenotyping Platform. “High throughput phenotyping” simply means getting a whole lot of individual plants measured very quickly. We’re talking hundreds if not thousands of plants in a few hours or less. As you would expect, this means that everything is automated. Here’s the fabulously low-key signage for the facility.


And here’s the super exciting high throughput platform. Each of these canisters can hold anywhere from one to (I believe) eight individual plants. The canisters are on conveyor belts that zip them here and there. In this picture they are in a holding pattern.


Here’s a short video showing the canisters zipping along the conveyor belt to be weighed. If they are below a specified weight, they get a precisely measured squirt of water (and possibly fertilizer, too).  It is really pretty nifty. If not a little frightening.

And here’s where the “phenotyping” happens. In this case, the phenotype that is being measured is root growth and architecture. The canisters roll into this chamber, robotic arms open the metal sleeves that cover the canisters and the root system, and a robotic camera takes 360 degree images of the roots with different bands of the light spectrum. It is pretty awesome. The amount of data that this platform can collect is mind-boggling. This truly is a state-of-the-art facility. Of course the challenge is still how to process all of this data and interpret it in a way that is meaningful and informative. So thankfully there is still a need for us human scientists. For a while, at least.

Outside of the greenhouse and phenotyping facilities there is space for small plot or mesocosm studies. This particular mesocosm study being conducted by Dr. David Bohan is examining how carabid beetles (ground beetles) affect weed communities. Some carabid beetles eat weed seeds that are lying on the soil surface. By eating weed seeds that would otherwise germinate and become weed seedlings, the carabid beetles provide a valuable biological source of weed control on the farm fields in which they are found. My lab is collaborating (with Dr. John Tooker at Penn State) on similar research on carabid beetles in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania. You can read more about the fascinating ecology of ground beetles and weed seed “predation” here.


My time here at INRA is rapidly drawing to a close. A big thank you to Stephane, Delphine, David, and everyone else I’ve met at INRA for helping to make my stay enlightening and memorable.

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