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Volume 7, Issue 4
May 2015

New Hardware and a Social Media Model Create Opportunities for Shared Learning

  • David M. Kramer, Ph.D.
  • Hannah Distinguished Professor in Photosynthesis and Bioenergetics
  • Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology
  • Director, MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory
  • College of Natural Science
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David Kramer wants to answer big questions about the state of photosynthesis on our planet. Answering these big questions requires a lot of data, and, in the past, gathering this information was not easy: The technology for taking key plant measurements has been expensive, and researchers at different institutions have had no good way of sharing data.

Kramer and his colleagues have overcome these two obstacles with the development of the MultispeQ device—an affordable handheld tool for taking vital plant measurements—and the PhotosynQ software, which makes it possible to upload these measurements into "the cloud" where they can be shared and analyzed by researchers everywhere, to give greater insights into how plants work and how to make them better. The impact of this scholarship provides critical information for scientists, plant breeders, and others to improve the productivity and security of crops in communities around the world.

A Dynamic Duo: PhotosynQ and MultispeQ

About ten years ago, Kramer was speaking at a conference in Japan. One of the attendees was a researcher from Botswana who was frustrated by how much it cost to buy technology for plant research at his university. "The cost of the machine he needed for local crop measurements was around $50,000," recalled Kramer, "but that was his department's entire annual budget."

Kramer thought that a cost-effective means of taking essential plant measurements could be developed. This is something he knows about. Like many plant researchers, Kramer discovered early on that asking unique questions often requires unique technology. Of course, technology is expensive, and even then there's not always a device available that meets the needs of the project. So he began building his own tech. "I would create a tool for one experiment to record a certain measurement," he said. "When that project was done I'd cannibalize parts from that first device because I had to measure something else."

At the MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory, which is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy program in Basic Energy Sciences, Kramer oversees a team that includes plant researchers, programmers, and engineers. This team is uniquely positioned to address the needs represented by Kramer's Botswana colleague and to think about ways data can be collected globally and shared with a wider community. The technology is already part of research projects in several countries in Africa, including Malawi, Uganda, and Zambia. These are supported by grants from the McKnight Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development through the Feed the Future Legume Innovation Lab and the Global Center for Food Systems Innovations.

There are essentially two parts to the project. MultispeQ is a hand-held, Bluetooth-enabled device that takes roughly twelve different plant measurements—for example, recording levels of CO2, rates and efficiency of photosynthesis, and nitrogen status. It also records light conditions, humidity, temperature, time, and location. Currently in beta testing, the rough plastic gadget is about the shape of an oversized harmonica case.

A hinged section at one end of the MultispeQ opens to clip around a leaf. A set of LEDs expose the leaf to pulses of light of various colors, and sensors detect the light that passes through, reflects off, or is given by the leaf. When these signals are interpreted, they can tell you a lot about a plant.

All of this data is fed to apps developed by Kramer's team. This is where PhotosynQ comes into play. The goal of PhotosynQ is to create a platform that makes it possible for anyone, anywhere to create, share, and analyze plant health information. The website, PhotosynQ.org, is a cloud-based data collection center. Researchers, professionals, and amateurs alike share their data online with the world. The open source platform makes it possible for the device to be developed in unforeseen directions. Researchers in Africa, for example, were able to use the device's CO2 monitoring ability to measure biological activity in the soil. Measuring biological activity typically requires farmers to send their soil away and wait several days for results. With MultispeQ, the process takes several minutes, and the recurring costs of testing are eliminated.

Dan TerAvest, a PhD student with Washington State University, coordinates with Malawian partners on the PhotosynQ.org project. He has seen how this project can help in Africa. "Universities and development organizations face significant constraints in their ability to collect the low-cost, quality data that is fundamental to improving Malawian agriculture," he said. "The PhotosynQ project would allow a wide range of organizations, universities, development organizations, and farmer organizations, to name a few, the ability to collect the data necessary to better select appropriate cultivars and cropping systems across diverse agroecologies in Africa."

A Model for Collaboration

The entire project relies on collaboration. Without regular input from a global community of researchers—professional and amateur alike—there are no data. Greg Austic, a project manager in Kramer's lab, understands this. He promotes the highly collaborative, or democratic, nature of PhotosynQ as a great benefit for citizen science.

In a recent conversation, Austic found it difficult to describe his role in the project. "I guess you could say that I am a co-founder of PhotosynQ," he said, "or you could call me the project lead; I do a lot of different things." PhotosynQ has been described as "the Facebook of plant science," but Austic hesitates to embrace that language. "PhotosynQ is designed to gather sensor-based, human-qualified measurements," he said. "Even a dog can have an account and post pictures on Facebook. We want better data than that. It's more important that we get a couple hundred devices out to the right people than distributing thousands to people who are unable to add useful context to measurements."

The task of getting MultispeQ into the hands of researchers and cultivating the PhotosynQ online community, however, goes beyond the mission of Kramer's lab. Once the technology is developed, Kramer believes it's his job to give this tech its own legs. Past projects from Kramer's lab have been spun out into free-standing companies. For example, the ePBR system—which creates a controlled environment for more predictive algae research—is now being produced and marketed by Phenometrics, Inc., in Lansing, Michigan. The plan for MultispeQ and PhotosynQ is to form a mission-based organization to carry on production, marketing, and distribution. Austic plans on being part of that new endeavor as things evolve.

All this serves Kramer's initial research interest: collecting measurements from around the world. This is where he finds the project's real value. "It's not to publish a paper or create a business," he said. "The real value is the data. This project has the potential of allowing us to take the pulse of photosynthesis across the planet." This kind of information, he said, is essential for answering big questions.

  • Written by Matthew Forster, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photograph courtesy of David M. Kramer, Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology