Can plant data collected in a small field in Malawi tell us anything about crop performance on farms across the US? You might be surprised by the answer to this question, even if you’re a scientist.
After attending the PhotosynQ Workshop held at Michigan State University last week, I felt compelled to write a blog highlighting a completely unique approach to scientific collaboration and data collection introduced by the PhotosynQ project, which, I am confident, will profoundly affect the traditional way we view scientific research and collaboration.
Plant researchers know that it is virtually impossible to exactly reproduce the environmental conditions that affect plant growth and development in the laboratory. The delicate balance inside plant tissues can be adversely affected by only few seconds of exposure to harsh weather conditions, alternating moisture levels or varying soil pH. Not to mention the devastating effects of insects and insect-borne diseases. Until recently, it was not possible to take the plant, together with its microenvironment, back to the lab for experimentation.
This is about to change, thanks to the vision of Professor David M. Kramer, Hannah Distinguished Professor in Photosynthesis and Bioenergetics at Michigan State University, and his team of scientists and engineers. Two years ago, the Kramer team embarked on a mission to make sophisticated science more accessible, convenient and affordable to researchers worldwide. The results of this passion are novel technologies, the PhotosynQ online platform and the Mutispeq hand-held device, that are transforming plant research by facilitating seamless exchange of scientific data and knowledge among researchers worldwide.
The PhotosynQ platform has been designed to measure and analyze various parameters relevant to plant health and development. The data is collected directly in the field with a Multispeq device connected to a computer or smartphone. The device itself has all performance capabilities of a high-end spectrophotometer. Both the PhotosynQ platform and the Multispeq device are open-source technologies, intended to be customized and tailored to the needs of the research community. Version 1.0 of the device is currently in production and scheduled for shipping in early July of 2016 to interested research groups across the world.
But how can this new technology so profoundly affect plant research?
It turns out that it is already doing so, at several different levels.
The Multispeq is produced and distributed to its end users at a fraction of the cost (1-2%) of an instrument with similar capabilities, several hundred dollars to be more precise. The use of the online platform is free of charge to all users who wish to contribute data. This means that research groups in underdeveloped African countries can equally effectively use both technologies, as US-based research labs with millions of dollars in funding. In fact, there are some very active research groups in Malawi that contribute data on a daily basis. Equally important, there are research teams across the US that use the PhotosynQ platform to collaborate virtually on joint research projects.
With the press of a button, and most of the times within a fraction of a second, the Mutispeq takes measurements of a range of plant health parameters, including: chlorophyll content/SPAD, photosynthetically active radiation (PAR) levels, photosystem I and photosystem II efficiency, proton motive force (PMF), and non-photochemical quenching (NPQ). The device can also measure ambient temperature, pressure and humidity and utilizes geotagging and time stamp features from the user’s cell phone. Collected data is instantly stored in the cloud and made available to project participants worldwide. The PhotosynQ team is presently developing additional capabilities for the instrument such as anthocyanin content measurements in the leaves and fruit, as well as soil conductivity, temperature and moisture measurements (with an add-on).
At the moment, there are over one thousand registered users of the PhotosynQ platform from more than 18 participating countries who have collectively taken more than 227,000 measurements. At this early stage in the project, it is hard to try and predict the potential significance of data contributed by researchers worldwide. However, with large data sets, one thing inevitably comes to mind – data mining.
Could any of the identified trends in data be used as predictors for plant/crop performance in the future? And, could these trends be turned into algorithms that can be used to guide farmers in their efforts to maximize crop yield and minimize losses?
Prof. Kramer hinted answers to these important questions during last week’s conference. He showed a data plot which clearly indicated a high degree of correlation between photosynthetic parameters recorded early in a plant’s life and crop yield, months later. And this is where, researchers will largely agree, science meets the real world and has its most profound impact – in practice.
It will be exciting to follow the progress of the PhotosynQ project in the coming months and years. In the meantime, researchers are encouraged to learn more about the technologies it offers and explore the possibility of joining the growing global community of MultispeQ and PhotosynQ users.
For a more detailed recap of the the first PhotosynQ workshop please visit the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory News page.
*If you liked this article, don’t forget to sign up to my blog at the top right corner.*
Jasenka Piljac Zegarac is a scientist and freelance writer. She holds a PhD in biology and a BS degree in biochemistry, and contributes on a regular basis to several health and science blogs. Her scientific publications have gathered more than 1100 citations. She may be contacted for assistance with a variety of science and medical writing projects.