Dr. Neil Emery
Vice-President, Research and Innovation
Trent University

Neil EmeryAttached to the new DNA Building at Trent University is a greenhouse that is so unique and high-tech that there are only two others like it in all of North America. Dr. Neil Emery, the Trent researcher who advocated for the greenhouse to be built, describes the facility as “a massive growth cabinet” with extreme climate control, meaning that any spot within the greenhouse can be regulated to within plus or minus one degree.

These state-of-the-art regulating capabilities, which include the lighting system in addition to temperature control, are key to Dr. Emery’s research which, as a plant biologist, consists of working to understand how plants grow chemically and genetically.

“We can now grow plants on demand,” says Dr. Emery, explaining that prior to the development of the new greenhouse, he was required to share space with other universities. “Now we are able to create a healthy, year-round supply of research material right here.”

His area of focus is on legumes – lentils, peas, chick peas, and beans – and examining how the seeds develop and the impact hormones have on their growth. “It’s all about the good things your mom always told you to eat, and what I like to call ‘the food of the future’,” Dr. Emery says, describing how legumes are not only extremely healthy, but also environmentally friendly because they produce their own nitrogen fertilizer. The only downside is that they are generally low-yield plants compared to more popular cereal crops. Dr. Emery hopes to change this through his research.

Dr. Emery is one of the world’s leading experts in the study of plant hormones. In particular, he works on a family of hormones, the cytokinins, which are notoriously difficult to analyze and which are potent regulators of plant development even when present at extremely low concentrations. Prior to coming to Trent in 2000, he completed post-doctoral research in Australia working on hormonal control of fruit set and seed development in chickpea and lupin and in France examining nitrogen and carbon metabolism in field peas. In his work with legumes he is studying how the plants biochemically pull themselves together as a means of determining how to create bigger, more stable yields. The end users of research findings would be breeders of plants who he could give direction for making better varieties of each plant.

“I see this as an opportunity to make Canada a leading competitor in the global grain legume market,” Dr. Emery said. As a lead competitor, Canada could be a major exporter of these grains to other countries; in addition, increasing the yields of legumes could also have an impact on the health of local populations and communities. “It’s a lot better than pushing fast food,” he says.

In addition to the greenhouse, Dr. Emery also conducts his research in a lab within the new DNA Building. In the spirit of collaboration and integration, Dr. Emery shares this space with other researchers, including Dr. Barry Saville. As one of Trent’s newest faculty members and researchers, Dr. Saville studies corn smut – a fungal disease of corn which decreases yields by replacing normal kernels of the cobs with large distorted tumours. A leading expert in gene expression of plants and their fungal hosts, Dr. Saville and Dr. Emery will no doubt have a lot to learn from one another.

“The new building is all about bringing like-minded researchers together to lean on each other for advice and ideas,” says Dr. Emery. And in addition to the study of plants, there are several other researchers within the building with whom Dr. Emery can collaborate and learn from, especially under the larger topic of stress physiology. While Dr. Emery and Dr. Saville work with the biochemistry of plants, Dr. Leslie Kerr from the departments of Biology and Psychology works with human physiology, Biology professor Dr. Ingrid Brenner’s research focuses on exercise physiology, and Dr. Gary Burness, also in the department of Biology, studies the physiology of animals, including birds and fish.

It is through studying the physiology of plants, however, that Dr. Emery hopes to make his mark and now with the new greenhouse up and running, it will only be a matter of time before that happens.

“Plant biology research wasn’t on the map at Trent before but now people are going to start thinking of us and they will all be pleasantly surprised when they come here and see it all for themselves.”