By measuring the metabolic activities of plants, Brigham Young University biochemistry professor Lee D. Hansen says, it is possible in an hour to identify which plants are most suited to grow in various kinds of environments.

Once identified, these best-of-the-bunch plants can be cloned many times over, giving farmers an economic leg-up in a highly competitive market.Hansen and Richard S. Criddle, a professor of biochemistry at the University of California at Davis, have been working together on the proj-ect. Results of their research will be published in the September issue of the journal Plant, Cell and Environment. It also has been submitted to The Canadian Journal of Forest Research.

Using modern calorimetry devices that measure heat, Hansen is able to take a piece of plant smaller than a thumbnail and measure the heat produced as it metabolizes.

Plants naturally produce this measurable heat as they grow by breaking down organic compounds into energy, which then is used by the plant to build new cells and tissues.

Metabolic activities are not the same as photosynthesis, the process by which plants take in sunlight for energy and release oxygen back into the air.

"Plants are as different individually as people are," Hansen said. "What we've shown is that by measuring the metabolic rate of a plant, we can select cultivars - plants produced by selective breeding - very quickly to closely match the environment a farmer wants to plant them in."

What ultimately limits a plant's growth in the presence of sufficient sunshine, water and nutrition is its metabolic rate, said Hansen.

For example, trees of the same species, planted at the same time and in the same soil, will not grow uniformly - years later, one may be several feet taller and much thicker. Much of this growth difference can be attributed to the plant's metabolic activity.

Hansen and Criddle have been successful in measuring the metabolism of several plants and then selecting the best of each to selectively breed, or clone, a "super crop."

In Canada, trees that commonly are used to produce pulp for the paper industry will soon be cloned on the basis of their metabolic rate, he said.

"We expect the initial phase of that program to roughly halve the length of time it takes to produce a usable tree," said Hansen. "We can virtually guarantee that these trees will perform in that particular environment better than any other tree. In other words, with a simple one-hour measurement, we can predict how big these trees will be 40 years from now."