PhotosynQ's first workshop a success

  • May 4, 2016
  • Kramer lab, PhotosynQ, outreach
  • Department of Energy Projects
  • By Igor Houwat

The Kramer lab is itching to take basic science research to the next level, and they know they are on to something big. The lab hosted its first all-day PhotosynQ workshop on April 22 at the MSU Molecular Plant Science Building to share insights into the technology in addition to real world applications. It was an intense event, and participants were buoyed by the ripples of passion and joy as Kramer and his group opened their arms to around 100 attendants from the university community and the private sector.
 

So, what is PhotosynQ?

PhotosynQ is a platform that allows educators, researchers, farmers, and citizen scientists to collect plant and soil data from a low cost and easy-to-use handheld device; analyze it as a community in order to better understand how plants function in nature, as opposed to controlled lab experiments; and ultimately create real world solutions based on acquired knowledge. As David Kramer, Hannah Distinguished Professor in Photosynthesis and Bioenergetics at the PRL, likes to say, “we are finally bringing the lab to field… and vice versa.”

This is how PhotosynQ works, in a nutshell: Users collect plant data with the MultispeQ device developed by the Kramer lab, measuring anything from light levels, photosynthetic efficiency and chlorophyll levels to soil moisture and seed mold, among other parameters. The MultispeQ cost ranges in the hundreds of dollars, but it can outperform more expensive machinery, largely solving accessibility issues.

Image of someone using the MultispeQ to take a plant measurement

Data from the device is then automatically uploaded to a website, also developed by the lab, via desktop or android devices, where users can create research projects and analyze the data via a rich web interface.

Image of phone with data ready to upload to the cloud

The magic really happens when other subscribers interact with project researchers – sometimes on the opposite side of the globe – to answer questions they might have about their data. For example, a farmer in Africa could ask a question about soil quality on his land, and dozens of people around the world would be able to answer and also to gain insights into their own work. Or a high school teacher could use the platform to teach her students basic concepts in the field that complement textbook learning.

Screenshot of the PhotosynQ website showing various projects
Image of how PhotosynQ connects scientists, educators, farmers, agricultural experts, and students, among others

The device technology and the website are open source by design and the data publicly available. Plant scientists at the PRL additionally have access to that rich store of data of plants in vivo – previously impossible to do at such a global and extremely affordable scale. 

It’s an educational win-win for all involved, inspiring another observer to dub PhotosynQ the “Facebook of plant science.” (Note: PhotosynQ is the platform, MultispeQ is the data-collecting device.) In three short years, PhotosynQ has grown from a small project in Kramer’s lab – which includes a unique blend of computer programmers, engineers, and plant biologists –  to a global network of researchers with a diverse set of skills and goals. Over 300 devices have been produced, with 227,000 data points uploaded to the website from over 1100 users, which has already yielded wondrous discoveries about plant activity.

For example, measurements with the freshly minted MultispeQ 1.0 during the early stages of plant growth have correlated with later crop yields; ultimately, the team hopes to reach the point they could use such measurements to forecast yields well in advance. This might allow farmers to better predict income, storage space, transportation costs and more far ahead of harvest season and in spite of crop growth challenges such as weather and light fluctuations, disease, and malnutrition.
 

Sharing the platform with the public

The PhotosynQ workshop fell under the wider goal of increasing access to the MSU community and beyond through informational talks, interactive events, device demonstrations, and micro grants for interested applicants. The keynote speech by Kramer was an exciting and widely accessible matter, reflecting that desire to share the technology with scientists, whether professional or amateur.

Image of David Kramer speaking to the audience
Kramer speaking to the audience

He specifically invited participants to take control of the platform for their purposes, a mantra often repeated throughout the workshop. Kramer also noted that basic researchers, who made up a majority of the audience, could potentially acquire a tool that could help articulate the connections between basic research and real world applications, an issue they routinely struggle with. 

Dan TerAvest, a post-doc at the Kramer lab, followed up with a success story from Malawi, a country with a population of 16 million people and one of the poorest on Earth. Most farmers live on small parcels of land, and yields are low due to to lack of agricultural resources and knowledge. Working alongside farmers and researchers from the government, a local university and the private sector, Dan’s efforts have led to the collection of over 40000 data points which have aided Malawian scientists and plant breeders who are working with farmers to increase food production without putting too much pressure on the environment. Dan has also created a collaboration with a Malawian entrepreneur who is on the ground consulting with interested parties, which takes the burden away from the PRL training future Malawian users remotely. The success with which PhotosynQ has been adopted in Malawi is being used as a template for expanding PhotosynQ to other countries, with PhotosynQ expanding, or planning to expand, to Zambia, Uganda, Kenya, and Botswana.

Image of attendees roaming the floor during lunch time, checking out posters and device demos.
Visitors roaming the exhibit

The afternoon breakout sessions invited observers to contribute insights into how PhotosynQ can further evolve. A major highlight was the education session, with a heated discussion on how to adapt the platform for high schoolers and undergraduates. Greg Austic, PhotosynQ co-founder, observed that the conversation focused on how to tease out genuine scientific contributions from student projects while adding to their scientific education. He anticipated that such technology could potentially pull students (and teachers) up to the bleeding edge of science early on in their educational development. 

“The answers are often murky (at best), the MultispeQ equipment is prototype, and even the measurements can be unproven. Is this too abstract a method to learn anything concrete, or are we showing students, as early as possible, the 'reality' of science?  I think this is a question that PhotosynQ and many other projects will run up against as science education changes in the next 20 years.” In order to help answer those questions, the Kramer lab has recently formed a PhotosynQ education group which is already preparing for its first test undergraduate workshop in June.

An Image depicting the variations on the MultispeQ
Afternoon session showcasing Photosynq tech breadth

Yet another afternoon highlight was a breakout session focusing on technological applications branching out from the MultispeQ, such as the CoralspeQ (underwater data on coral reefs), GrainspeQ (grain), and SoilspeQ (soil). Elsewhere, a cluster of sessions focused on “how-to” subjects ranging from how to use the MultispeQ on the field to a session walking the audience through the intricacies of creating a PhotosynQ project online.
 

Upcoming horizons

2016 has been a landmark year for the PhotosynQ group. Production on the improved MultispeQ 1.0 will kick into high gear soon, with thousands of devices expected to ship worldwide. The workshop was the first of more to follow. According to Austic, “We've been to many conferences where we present PhotosynQ as a concept, but those always require a refined pitch lacking critical details needed to understand the big picture.  In contrast, the first true PhotosynQ workshop allowed us to lay out the full picture - including the science, applications, and how PhotosynQ fits into a broader Open Science Hardware movement.”

And the private sector has noticed. TerAvest mentioned a number of successful partnerships over the platform’s three years of existence, including Brandon Bioscience, a company in Ireland that is using PhotosynQ to evaluate products that boost plant health, and Tree Preservation Australia, which is using PhotosynQ to rehabilitate trees in urban areas.

Map of the world showing PhotosynQ's global reach
PhotosynQ's global reach

Newly interested private companies came out to try the technology on April 22, including a Grand Rapids company that uses LED lighting to improve plant yields for high-end agricultural products, and Syngenta, the largest agricultural company in the world with $15 billion in annual sales in over 90 countries. In fact, Rick DeRose, Syngenta’s Global Expert for Technology Acquisition, met Kramer at a conference only two weeks prior to the workshop and saw an opportunity to enhance his company’s data mining strategies.

“Anything that can take breeders’ qualitative data and quantify it is interesting to Syngenta, as it improves data quality,” DeRose said. “We are also very focused on emerging agriculture, for example, having invested up to $1 billion in Africa alone.” (The strategy stems from Syngenta’s belief that Africa has the resources to feed its own population and also to become a major world food exporter.) The shared interest in data and emerging economies had DeRose positing Kramer and Syngenta were philosophically aligned on how agriculture needs to move forward.

Although DeRose admitted that there were a few more kinks to work out before the device is industry ready, he has caught the PhotosynQ bug: “Kramer is a rare commodity in that he marries three things in one person – physics, physiology and engineering. PhotosynQ would have been impossible to develop without this mix. In fact, if Syngenta were doing this research, we would take the same steps, and even though the Kramer lab are still identifying the correlations among agronomical traits, they are dead on target to get there, and soon.”


Update on May 13, 2016: For a visitor's perspective on the workshop, visit The Science Writer's blog post. Jasenka has received many positive comments in response, even some inquiries on how to order the MultispeQ.


PhotosynQ is sponsored by: Michigan State University, MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory, ARPA-E, Department of Energy, DOE Office of Basic Energy Sciences, Venturit, MSU Global Center for Food Systems Innovation, USAID, The McKnight Foundation, and Center for Advanced Algal and Plant Phenotyping.