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Revolutionary look at how plants use light may help improve crops

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Dina Mandoli can lay claim to a feat that's relatively rare among doctoral candidates.

Not only has she tossed out the interpretation of 40 years of botanical research, but she's made a major contribution to the understanding of how plants use light.

First, she discovered that ''safe'' lights - lamps commonly used by botanists to see during experiments where plants are supposed to ''think'' it's dark - weren't fooling the plants. Plants, she found, will react even to the low level of light emitted by these safe lamps. This error has resulted in the collection of incorrect data in thousands of experiments.

Then she discovered that plants have a highly sophisticated fiber-optical system for passing light from one part of the plant to the other. Light can travel along plant fibers in much the same way that the telephone company sends it through bundles of thin glass rods, she reports.

''It's brilliant work,'' says Washington University plant physiologist Barbara Picard. Ms. Mandoli's fiber-optics discovery, she says, is a ''critical'' step toward understanding of how plants grow. The understanding of the plant growth cycle, she adds, is necessary to improve crop strains in agriculture and other applications.

''It's going to be a boon to the basic research people,'' says Stanley Roux, a biochemist at the University of Texas, Austin. ''It will change the way they design their research.'' Researchers, he says, knowing how plants carry light through their system and where they're most sensitive to light, will be able to separate the most light-sensitive parts for study. Then they can accurately measure the light efficiency of plants, looking for plants that use light the most efficiently. This could lead to increased productivity per acre.

''We may be able to forget about genetically engineering plants - the strains we're looking for may already exist,'' Roux said.

Initially, Ms. Mandoli, a graduate student at Stanford University, set out on a sort of trial run to reproduce many of the classical experiments of the last 60 years dealing with phytochrome, a blue-green pigment controlling growth in plants.

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