Controlled Environment Labs

In 1962 the Plant Physiology Division was created at Palmerston North. Seven years later, in December 1969, my father William Laing started working there, in time for the 1970 official opening by the Queen of the special ‘climate control’ rooms where temperature, day length, CO2 and humidity could be varied to study the effects on plant growth. William published his first paper, Comparative Photorespiration in Amaranthus, Soybean and Corn, in 1971 using data derived from controlled environment experiments. Over the course of his career with DSIR, HortResearch, and Plant and Food Research William repeatedly used the climate rooms to conduct and publish well cited research. He was not alone, over 367 papers involving 160 researchers were published between 1966 and 2013 using experiments conducted in the climate rooms. In June 2013, with the impending closure of the climate rooms due to changes in earthquake building standards, William conducted his last experiment series in the Plant and Food Climate Rooms. This experiment, examining how Arabidopsis plants respond to stress, served as a form of farewell to a defining site of his research into the physiology of plants over a 44 year career in science. 

The 1960s era building, with its labs, offices and climate rooms is iconic for me. As a young child I accompanied my father on the weekends when he went in to check the progress of his plants growing in the climate rooms. I remember walking down the dim corridors to the climate room. The climate room door opening, revealing the plants in the dampness, light, and changed temperature, was always somehow shocking and astounding for me, a kind of science magic. Where for me, the climate room defines my image of plant research, for William, climate labs are an essential resource for contemporary science or in his words, “controlled environments for plant growth are essential to progress understanding of our plants.”