For the breeders involved in the project, this is invaluable information. They use the data for phenotyping – the process of surveying a crop's external traits to determine which plants are selected for breeding. Farmers have employed phenotyping for over 10,000 years, but the work being done by Stefan Gerth and his team has shone a light on previously hidden traits for the first time.
Gerth's technology is already in the application stage, in the form of a CT scanner that X-rays flowerpots in the greenhouse one by one, in a fully automated process. In China, the technology is being used for potato breeding, while projects in the US and Australia focus on maize and heat-resistant wheat respectively.
When it comes to wheat, Gerth is more interested in ears than roots. "From the outside, there is no way of telling how many grains of wheat a given ear contains," Gerth explains. Until now, this meant that breeders had to thresh each ear individually in order to count the grains. With the automated CT system from the Fraunhofer IIS Development Center for X-Ray Technology, thousands of ears can now be examined for a wide range of traits in a very short time.