The trons of biology

 In the life sciences, the suffix “tron” signals the centrality of modernism, namely that technology would solve social problems and that scientists had to become technologists to master both nature and society.

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David P.D. Munns, ENGINEERING THE ENVIRONMENT: Phytotrons and the Quest to Control Climate in the Cold War (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2017).

L. T. Evans, I. F. Wardlaw, and R.W. King, ‘Plants and Environment: Two Decades of Research at the Canberra Phytotron,’ The Botanical Review 51:2 (1985): 203-272.











The trons of the life sciences began with the phytotron. Phytotrons were, and still are, computer-controlled environmental laboratories consisting of any number of rooms or smaller cabinets, all able to produce any set of climatic conditions. Because the growth and development of any organism depends on its genes and its environment, plant scientists required the ability to produce reproducible climates in order to conduct experiments that tested plants’ (and some animals’) responses to various environmental conditions. But phytotrons were only the first of an entire family of trons for biology. Following the first phytotron, there came the Climatron, Biotron, and Ecotron, all increasingly elaborate facilities to control climate. There were also a number of smaller associated biological technologies like the assimitron, that measured the CO2 uptake of a canopy, the dasotron that studied small ecologies, and the rhizotron, which is a viewing chamber where you view tree roots and various arthropods that live underground.

Phytotrons are “the grand experiment” of modern biology.
— Director of the Hungarian phytotron at Martonvásár Sándor Rajki



Where did the name "phytotron" come from? It was the invention of a pair of plant physiologists at Caltech in 1949. One, James Bonner, told this story about the name:

Where did the name "phytotron" come from? It was the invention of a pair of plant physiologists at Caltech in 1949. One, James Bonner, told this story about the name:

 “the word phytotron was coined at a morning coffee session in the old Greasy Spoon at Caltech, and during a discussion between Samuel G. Wildman and myself. … Sam and I started out with the hypothesis that anything as fancy as the proposed plant laboratory shouldn’t be called an air-conditioned greenhouse or anything simple like that, but should have a more magnificent name. We ended up with “thermophotophytotron” but quickly slimmed it down to “phytotron.” The creator of the phytotron, Frits Went was of course very annoyed at the term and thought that fun was being poked at his brain child. In the meantime, however, Dr. Robert Millikan [president of Clatech and Nobel Prize winner in physics] has received word of the coinage of this new term. He then proceeded to give a public talk at which he said approximately that this new machine, the phytotron, would do for biology what cyclotrons had done for physics, and he then continuously used the term. Frits was impressed and started to use it himself.” 

From a letter from James Bonner to George Beadle. Sept 9, 1970. James Bonner papers. File 20.1. Archives. California Institute of Technology.

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the cyclotron … fulfills about the same function in physics as the phytotron does in plant science
— Frits W. Went

 Humanity faced a crucial question in the last decade of the twentieth century of how to scientifically define and measure the effects of global climate change on biological organisms. Into highly charged debates over the extent of climate change, mankind’s effect on the environment, and global social and economic justice, a new instrument appeared. It has been inevitably called the Ecotron.  Situated at Silwood Park outside London, and attached to Imperial College, the Ecotron was built in 1991. The facility owes its existence to the UK’s National Environmental Research Council’s (NERC) Center for Population Biology. As John Lawton, its creator noted, the Ecotron “is unique among controlled environmental facilities in that it attempts to construct, maintain and manipulate entire model ecosystems and simultaneously monitor population dynamics and ecosystem processes.”  Lawton concisely summarized the advantages conferred on ecology via valid “laboratory experiments” like those conducted in the Ecotron:

“First, they offer a tractable yet biologically realistic bridge between the simplicity of mathematical models (which incorporate one or very few species and omit many essential linkages) and the full complexity of the real world. If we cannot understand simplified ecosystems like those in the Ecotron, we are unlikely to understand very complex ones. Second, the very act of trying to create and maintain simplified ecosystems in the laboratory tests ecological knowledge to its limits. Third, laboratory experiments speed up research. Fourth, these experiments give a degree of control and replication that is impossible in the field.”

As a modern ecologist, Lawton contended that ecology possessed theoretical mathematical models of ecosystem behavior but these must be tested. Valid testing, however, is not just a field experiment because the field does not possess a possibility of scientific control. That notion of “scientific control” is deeply informed by the historical experience of scientists from all fields. Control comes through a laboratory. In ecology, an ecosystem can be fully enclosed in a controlled and monitored environmental laboratory (like the Ecotron), which is more complex than the mathematical model, yet simpler than the field. Likewise, opened in 1998, the University of Joensuu in Finland now hosts research into plant root and soil systems via their dasotrons. Like the British Ecotrons, the Finnish dastrons are charged with “ecological and physiological research” on plants and ecosystems because of the “global human impact” on the environment.