In many of my posts, I’ve talked about photosynthesis research conducted in universities by professionals with specialized equipment. I hope you were paying attention because not it’s your turn to be the photosynthesis researcher. Introducing ‘PhotosynQ’- a citizen science project with the goal of turning anyone with a cell phone into a photosynthesis researcher that can contribute to a database of results from plants growing in their natural environments around the world. What? Photosynthesis research… citizen science… open source and open access… chlorophyll fluorescence on your cell phone… It must be my birthday!*
Personally, I’ve spent more than a decade performing these measurements on plants and pond scum in controlled lab conditions (as have numerous other photosynthesis researchers). Now, it’s time to take that capability to the streets, well fields any way. The PhotosynQ project simplifies the user experience for sophisticated biophysical measurements. In other words- cheap and easy! All of that real-world data is then deposited in the cloud for open access analysis by researchers. This creates a win-win situation for both citizen and professional scientists. Citizen scientists get a meaningful scientific experience connecting with cutting-edge photosynthesis research (no more chlorophyll bore-o-phyll). Professional scientists get access to loads more data collected on organisms in real-world conditions, which can be analyzed for trends and relationships that may not be evident in controlled growth conditions. These results and new hypotheses then feed into additional research.
Before you get too concerned that we’re unleashing an army of researchers that will leave a trail of dead and damaged plants in their wake, let’s set the record straight. All of these measurements are non-destructive- just clip a leaf in the holder for a moment while it is still attached to the plant. The measurements take advantage of the way photosynthetic organisms use light energy or, more specifically, release the excess light energy they cannot use as fluorescence. Obviously, they do not glow in the dark (they might, but that’s for completely different reasons and that’s another project altogether). This is a much lower level of emitted red light that instruments can detect with useful sensitivity. Remember the ‘Visualizing Photosynthesis’ post where primary productivity was being measured from space? That’s basically the data the satellite was collecting. Check out the last video in that post for a refresher tutorial. Other experiments are absorbance measurements that also exploit spectral changes caused by the function of the photosynthetic machinery. Sure, it sounds sophisticated, but again we’re talking something handheld that connects to your cell phone. It’s not like you’ll be wearing the Ghosbusters proton pack, and there’s no need to worry about crossing the streams! The PhotosynQ instrumentation is as safe as any other modern portable electronic device. Who knows, maybe one day they’ll make a Google Glass version and I can finally just detect photosynthesis measurement results with my own eyes.**
The brainpower behind this project is a small group of researchers affiliated with the Kramer lab at Michigan State University. They are very close to releasing a beta test version, so if this is something you’d be interested in, go fill out the application ASAP. Otherwise, you may have to wait awhile until the final version is available. I think this is a great opportunity for science classes, gardeners, farmers, park rangers and naturalists to measure the photosynthesis occurring all around us. You could follow the photochemistry of your garden all season. Find the most productive I’m definitely finding a way to plug into the project to translate the science behind the measurements.
*It is btw.
**Too much? Just me? Yeah. Got it.
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