June 2012

Radiation Imaging Detectors for Plant Photosynthesis Research

Imaging tools aid research in global climate change, plant genetics, biofuels, agriculture, and carbon sequestration.

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Image courtesy of Jefferson Lab

The PhytoPET plant imaging system.

The Office of Nuclear Physics funds a community of scientists to do basic nuclear physics research that seeks to uncover the fundamental nature of matter. As a consequence of this basic research, many ideas and instruments (funded through various sources) have found their way into many different areas in public life as well as in other government programs. This highlight is an example of such a "spinoff".

The Science

Jefferson Lab researchers have designed and implemented unique imaging tools, dubbed PhytoPET and PhytoBeta, to aid plant biology research into photosynthesis and sugar transport.

The Impact

These nuclear physics detectors are being used to conduct studies in plants under different conditions and are attracting interest from biologists as useful tools in research addressing global climate change, plant genetics, biofuels, agriculture and carbon sequestration.


Jefferson Lab and Duke University have been collaborating on the development of radiation imaging detectors for plant biology research. Plant biologists use carbon dioxide labeled with the positron emitter carbon-11 (produced by the Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory) to study physiological functions related to photosynthesis in live plants. Jefferson Lab has developed PhytoBeta, a compact high-resolution beta-positive particle imager, and PhytoPET, built of positron-emission tomography (gamma-ray imaging) detectors, to allow the imaging of carbon-11 as it moves through plants. PhytoBeta detects positrons directly, enabling the imaging of plants with very thin leaves; it also has a flexible arm for optimum placement near plant anatomy of interest. PhytoPET is built of modular imaging units, which can image the gamma-rays that result from the positron annihilation in thicker plants; it can also be customized into a variety of geometries to accommodate any plant shape. These carbon-11 imaging units are being used to conduct photosynthesis and sugar transport (carbohydrate translocation) studies in plants under different conditions, attracting interest from biologists who can apply these tools to agricultural, bio-fuel and carbon sequestration research.


Andrew Weisenberger
Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility


This work is supported in part by the DOE Office Science Biological and Environmental Research program and Nuclear Physics program grant DE-FG02-97ER41033, and National Science Foundation grant nos. IBN-9985877 and DBI-0649924. Additional support was provided by Duke University, the Triangle Universities Nuclear Laboratory, West Virginia University and The University of Maryland School of Medicine.


A.G. Weisenberger et al., "PhytoBeta imager: a positron imager for plant biology." Phys. Med. Biol. 57 4195 (2012) [DOI: 10.1088/0031-9155/57/13/4195]

A. G. Weisenberger et al.,“Nuclear physics detector technology applied to plant biology research.” Nucl. Instruments Methods Phys. Res. Sect. Accel. Spectrometers Detect. Assoc. Equip. 718 157 (2013) doi:10.1016/j.nima.2012.08.097

Related Links

Radiation Detector & Imaging GroupExternal link

Highlight Categories

Program: BER, NP

Performer/Facility: University, DOE Laboratory

Additional: Technology Impact

Last modified: 11/19/2015 9:13:42 AM