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September 24, 2013 | Tom Ballard

“Root guy” speaks at international conference in Beijing

Phenotype Screening-teknoDan McDonald, President and Co-Founder of Knoxville-based Phenotype Screening Corporation, recently told us he spent several days in China earlier this month at an international conference.

In fact, he was one of just nine speakers, and the only commercial company, brought in to present breakthrough technologies in root research. The event was the 2013 “Global Root Health Forum,” hosted by Syngenta, an international agrochemical company with $14 billion in annual sales.

More than 125 technical experts from 25 countries met in Beijing September 2 through 4.

“We’ve become known as the root guys,” McDonald says of himself and Phenotype Co-Founder Ron Michaels. We previously profiled the company at

“Root health research offers untapped potential for valuable discovery and innovation by studying the multiple factors and complex interactions impacting root growth,” according to Syngenta, which “sees healthier roots as leading to better crop performance and stress tolerance, resulting in increased, more stable yields.”

McDonald introduced Phenotype’s patented technology for studying root system development over time and showed how it is being used to better understand the impact of modern agricultural methods on root health.

“Farming today has become a high technology, science-based industry,” says McDonald. “A modern farmer uses satellite imagery, soil fertility maps, and GPS driven planters and harvesters.”

McDonald explained that farmers have to understand the latest in crop genetics, long-term tillage practice, cover crops, pest population dynamics, and chemical treatments.

“Many of his (the farmer’s) decisions are guided by sophisticated computer models,” he said. “Every time something is done to the soil or to the plant, you can expect to see a change in the root system.”

Phenotype helps seed companies and the chemical companies better understand how the root system is affected by their products and recommended practices.

McDonald says that Phenotype has studied more than 250,000 X-ray images of plant root systems, seeds, stalks, leaves and flowers. This work has led to the development of software to extract useful scientific data from the X-ray images.

“We were the only commercial company invited to this forum, and it speaks volumes about our reputation in the international agricultural community,” McDonald proudly noted.

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