November 2014, Volume 3 Issue 3

The Wisconsin Fast Plants Program

Hedi Baxter Lauffer, PhD
Director, Wisconsin Fast Plants Program
University of Wisconsin-Madison


To know a plant, grow a plant! That has been the Wisconsin Fast Plants Program’s motto for over 25 years. Our Program supports the widespread use of Wisconsin Fast Plants® by teachers, students, and researchers around the world. We serve as a portal for all the learning and innovation that is associated with research and teaching, using Fast Plants as a model organism.

Fast Plants are a rapid-cycling Brassica rapa, the same species as turnips and Chinese cabbage and close relative to other important economic crops like cabbage and broccoli.  Forty years ago, Dr. Paul Williams at the University of Wisconsin—Madison began breeding this line of plants for his own research, seeking an extremely short life cycle and a line of Brassicas that would thrive in laboratory-friendly conditions. Since his initial success developing the research organism that came to be known as Wisconsin Fast Plants®, Williams’ plants have been used for research worldwide, and also in space. The Fast Plants’ breeding program continues to this day as Wisconsin Fast Plants Program staff isolate and refine new genetic and phenotypic traits that are useful for research and teaching. Countless teachers contributed in the past and continue to work with the Fast Plants Program, developing materials and making the Program’s offerings effective for pre-K through undergraduate classroom and student use.

Why have Fast Plants endured as a research organism with widespread educational use? The answer is in the petite, fast-growing, yellow-flowered plant. In just 14 days we can observe a Fast Plant grow from seed to flowering, and in those two weeks we see tremendous diversity among plants in the population because every plant is genetically unique. Two of the characteristics that distinguish Fast Plants as a research organism are: 1) they only reproduce sexually, and 2) they rarely self-pollinate. Therefore, the kinds of phenotypic diversity and inheritance patterns that we can observe in a population of Fast Plants are similar to what we can observe in many animal populations, including humans. Add to those characteristics the super-fast life cycle, the ease with which Fast Plants can be grown, and the rapid response rate to environmental influences, and you have an ideal research organism. It is the plant itself that keeps us all motivated.

A basic Google search for Wisconsin Fast Plants generates over 37,000 results, many of which are experiments or labs posted by teachers and student-researchers. Scanning those results that are directly connected to experimentation, one finds a wide range of life and physical science phenomena that have been investigated with Fast Plants. For example, a senior won an award in the Alabama Geological Society’s 2012 Science Engineering Fair with an investigation into the effects of zinc contamination in soils, using Fast Plants. From a naturalist perspective, an eighth grader won recognition in 2013 from the American Museum of Natural History for her field investigation into allelopathy, which built on her earlier lab-based experimentation with Wisconsin Fast Plants. In addition to a wide variety of environmental and ecological investigations conducted at all grade levels with Fast Plants, secondary, AP® Biology, and undergraduate students annually use Fast Plants to conduct genetics and evolutionary biology investigations that are designed to learn about the heritability of phenotypic traits and the effects of selection through generations. The possibilities for experimental inquiries using Fast Plants are countless and fascinating.

As the Director of the Wisconsin Fast Plants Program, I am committed to using Fast Plants to support science research and learning that ensures all citizens in our nation and around the world understand and appreciate our fundamental dependence on plants. With more than 25 years experience with grant-supported development projects using Fast Plants, our Program provides resources openly through our website and digital library and facilitates discussions about their use via social networking. Further, we now focus our attention in support of teaching and research practices that involve critical data analyses, the construction of robust, evidence-based explanations, and designing solutions.

Constructing scientific explanations for phenomena or designing solutions related to plants frequently involves comparing one population of Fast Plants—grown in ideal conditions—to another population that is grown in experimental conditions. Information about technology and procedures that have consistently supported “normal” Fast Plant growth has been amassed through decades of plant science investigations conducted and shared by teachers, students, scientists and engineers. At the Fast Plants Program, one of our roles is to document and freely distribute those technologies and protocols that typically result in “normal” plant growth and provide information about techniques for quantifying environmental factors and their potentially observable effects on plant growth and development.

Distributing Fast Plants information and resources is accomplished through a variety of online venues. The Program maintains a Fast Plants website as its primary resource and communications portal. Within the main Fast Plants website are planning tools for choosing and constructing growing and lighting systems plus planting and tending tips. In addition, the Program maintains a digital library on its website in which freely available online resources that are directly associated with educational- and research-related Fast Plants work are cataloged and annotated. All work shared online by The Wisconsin Fast Plants Program is licensed under a Creative Commons Share Alike License, meaning our materials are free to use for non-commercial, educational use. One can also find Fast Plants data discussions on our Facebook page and Social Network; creative growing innovations are highlighted on our Pinterest pages; and “how to” or feature videos are included on our YouTube Channel. If you need a quick response to a pressing question or want to post your latest Fast Plants accomplishments, @fastplants on Twitter is yet another way to contribute your Fast Plants research and teaching experiences or questions to a broad audience.

The Wisconsin Fast Plants Program fosters collaborations with teachers and researchers and works in partnership with a variety of organizations, currently including the National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT), BSCS, Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, and Carolina Biological Supply (who sells and distributes Wisconsin Fast Plants seeds and kits). Our goal is to support through our partnerships and endeavors the kinds of research and teaching practices and resources that build and increase opportunities for understanding plants and their valuable roles in Earth’s ecosystems.


*JESS Articles using Fast Plants: "Sugar uptake and starch consumption in Brassica rapa", "The allelopathic effects of juglone containing nuts", and "Seedless fruit and methods of Parthenocarpy"