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ICPEP-3 (2005) Souvenir

 The Biotron: An Experimental Climate Change Research Facility

A. Singh1 , M. Dixon2 , B. Grodzinski3 , N. Huner4*

1Chetna Research Institute, London, Ontario, Canada, www.chetnaresearch.com

2Dept. of Environmental Biology, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, N1G 2W1

3Dept. of Plant Agriculture, University of Guelph, Guelph, Ontario, Canada, N1G 2W1

4Dept. of Biology, University of Western Ontario, London, Ontario, Canada, N6A 5B7

*Corresponding author (nhuner@uwo.ca);

Web: www.biotron.uwo.ca; www.ces.uoguelph.ca



The Biotron is a modular, interdisciplinary, experimental climate change research facility developed through funding from the Canadian federal government, the Ontario provincial government, the University of Western Ontario (Western), the University of Guelph, Agriculture & Agri-Food Canada (AAFC), and several foundations and corporate contributors. Construction of the Biotron started in May 2005 and will be completed in 2007.

Major innovations of the Biotron include, first, the capacity to assess the impact of climate change on the interactions of plants, insects, and microorganisms. On the rooftop, six large, environmentally-controlled mesocosms or Biomes will provide a realistic location for testing concepts developed on the lab bench or in growth chambers. Thus, the Biotron enables the integration of experimental climate change research from the molecular scale to the mini-ecosystem scale. Second, the Earth Science Biome features a custom-designed, 6 meter high, controlled environment soil monolith system which will allow researchers to transport intact, 10,000 kg soil columns from the field into the facility at experimental containment temperatures ranging from approximately -30°C to +40°C. Third, all imaging systems, analytical instruments, and growth chambers from each module will be integrated through an IT backbone that allows remote access and control from any web-browser. Last, the Transgenic Module includes two, federally certified, Containment Level 3 (CL3) laboratories for work on airborne biohazardous plant and microbiological pathogens, with a contiguous large, walk-in growth chamber.

The facilities summarized above represent Phase II of an ongoing multi-stage project. In 1999, Phase I of the Biotron Project was established as the Controlled Environment Systems Research Facility (CESRF www.ces.uoguelph.ca) located on the campus of the University of Guelph. The primary focus of the CESRF is the evaluation of plant-based life support systems for space travel and related terrestrial applications. Research partners associated with CESRF include the aerospace, chemical, and agricultural industries. The research mission of the Biotron is to:

  • accelerate our understanding of the responses to and consequences of global climate change on terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems;

  • support and stimulate the shift of growth markets towards a “bioeconomy” in the areas of medicine and agriculture;

  • assess and quantify the potential environmental benefits and risks associated with emerging biotechnologies on biodiversity and general ecosystem health. The resulting deliverable will be a blueprint for long-term, ecosystem health in conjunction with sustainable economic growth in the medical and agricultural sectors of the global economy.

  • The research mission will be accomplished by:

  • integrating research in environmental biology, medicine and agriculture;

  • providing unprecedented experimental scale and flexibility with respect to controlled environment research on organisms as diverse as microbes, plants and insects in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

Research Modules

The Biotron is a Level 2 containment facility designed on a modular basis. It serves as a premier research venue hosting unique Biomes and containment features in addition to several labs that provide the latest tools in plant, insect, and microbiological research. The facilities are designed with multiple air-locks and pressure cascades to prevent cross-contamination between modules or the release of organisms and pollen to the environment. Each module contains a fully equipped wet laboratory and serves as staging areas for experiments in the Biomes and they also support their own distinct research programs.


Available in the Biotron are six large, custom-designed, environmentally-controlled, roof-top Biomes exhibiting enhanced Level 2 containment which are designed to allow multi-disciplinary teams to create and simulate integrated ecosystems including plants, insects, soil microbes, fungi, and algae. The biomes combine natural sunlight which either can be augmented by artificial lighting or reduced by activated, shading systems. Furthermore, all biomes are equipped with an array of micro-sensors to enable strict analysis and computer control over factors such as CO ~, temperature, light intensity, and precipitation.

The Biomes allow researchers working at the molecular level to scale up experiments to the mini-ecosystem level. Conversely, they allow ecologists to scale down experiments performed under variable field conditions to environmentally-controlled conditions within a biome. Thus, the biomes allow researchers to design various mesocosms and simulate pertinent climate change scenarios in order to assess the impact of an array of environmental factors on plant-soil-insect-microbe interactions, and bio-risk assessment of emerging biotechnologies and pollutants.

The Earth Sciences module contains a custom-designed, environmentally-controlled biome in which soil monoliths (1x1x6m) can be studied from regions as diverse as the Arctic tundra to modern agricultural fields. The Earth Sciences biome is suitable for the investigation of climate change on soil structure, soil hydrology, soil microbiology, as well as plant-soil-microbe interactions. This specialized biome exhibits dual isolated temperature zones over two stories, individually programmable in the range of -30°C to +40°C with surface irradiance ranging from complete darkness to 80% full sunlight. Ancillary facilities include a central analytical laboratory with state-of-the-art instrumentation including inductively coupled plasma, ion chromatography, gas chromatography-mass spectrometry, and X-ray fluorescence for soil and hydrological analyses.

Central Image Data Server (CIDS)

A unique feature of the Biotron, which strengthens its collaboration capabilities, is the capacity to provide researchers with real-time, world-wide experimental and data access and management. At the core of the Biotron's scientific functionality will be its secure, high-speed, web-accessible imaging database and data analysis system. The system will allow image acquisition and analytical systems data to be stored, annotated, retrieved, processed, and accessed on a central server from the initiating workstation, Biotron computer labs, or remotely through the internet. Additionally, Biotron computer labs will provide users with collaboration tools such as video and web conferencing, and access to high-end image analysis and processing software. Imaging technologies available in this suite feature the latest in confocal microscopy, digital light and fluorescence microscopy, transmission electron microscopy, and scanning electron microscopy. Contiguous with the Imaging suite is a spacious central laboratory for sample preparation, sectioning, coating as well as a cell tissue culture laboratory.

Plant Growth & Productivity

The components of this module located at the University of Western Ontario are contiguous with the newly relocated Environmental Stress Biology Group. The module houses 19 growth cabinets which include custom-designed, ultra-low growth cabinets which can attain temperatures as low as -20°C at 80% full sunlight and -40°C in the dark. In addition, specialized controlled growth facilities are available for modulating CO2 concentrations, temperature, high light, UV levels and humidity singly or in combination in a constant or oscillating mode. Enhancing the functionality of these growth facilities are four new research laboratories that include a core instrument facility, a state-of-the-art flow cytometry facility, as well as a new fluorescence spectroscopy imaging facility. The CESRF component of this module includes 8 custom-designed, controlled environment growth rooms capable of providing temperatures ranging from -20°C to +40°C, irradiance ranging from complete darkness to 80% full sunlight to assess plant canopy gas exchange. This enables the continuous and non-invasive measurement of plant growth and biomass production.


The Insect module is designed to allow research on the propagation and experimentation on a diverse array of insects such as drosophila, aphids, mites, mosquitoes, bees, moths, butterflies and caterpillars via a series specialized colony rearing and experimental growth chambers which can mimic habitats as diverse as the Arctic, desert, and tropical regions. The research enabled by this biome includes the study of the effects of environmental change on the interactions between plants, herbivores, and natural pest predators. In addition, this module provides a basis for the development of insect pest and disease vector control technologies through chemical ecology and/or biotechnology.

Transgenic Plants

The Transgenic Plant module provides facilities that will not only enable basic research in the use of transgenic plants to study plant growth, development, and productivity, but will also enable scientists and industrial partners to assess the ecosystem risks of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on wild, endemic species. The facilities contain advanced tools for the development of novel GMOs in molecular farming, which consists of genetically engineering plants to produce therapeutic or nutritional substances such as vaccines, antibodies, proteins, enzymes and polymers. Included in this area are six walk-in transgenic growth rooms, a specialized pesticide delivery laboratory, a seed storage room, a general media preparation room, a cell transfer laboratory, a large transformation laboratory, and two Level 3 containment laboratories.


The Microbiology Module enables a diverse array of research including the examination of the origins of human pathogens and their progression from the soil to human diseases as well as microbial molecular ecology, biodiversity, and global biogeography. The laboratories provide excellent cryogenic facilities to culture and preserve newly discovered species of soil, airborne, as well as insect-borne fungi. A separately contained laboratory for mould research minimizes potential contamination of other micro-organisms with fungal spores. An important feature of this module is the presence of 48 specialized incubators providing unique temperature gradients for microbial growth. In the context of global warming, this is essential to establish a firm understanding of the role of temperature in determining the geographical distribution of large numbers of microbial isolates as well as the role of temperature in regulating microbe-insect-plant interactions important in maintaining natural vegetation, crop productivity and plant biodiversity.

The Future Phase III

Phase III, to be centered in Guelph adjacent to the existing CESRF, involves the development of larger scale autonomous robotic greenhouses. It endeavors to develop innovative robotics technologies that can be applied to the production of greenhouse crops for human consumption and molecular farming while augmenting controlled environment technologies toward the goal of completely sealed greenhouses. This has relevance in that it will seek to alleviate the significant labor and energy demands of the burgeoning greenhouse industry, while creating biological life-support technologies for manned interplanetary missions.

This article has been reproduced from the Souvenir released during the Third International Conference

on Plants & Environmental Pollution (ICPEP-3) held at Lucknow from  28 November to 2 December 2005.

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