Photosynq: Plugging into Photosynthesis

By October 21st, 2013 at 11:37 am | Comment

Recently researchers at Michigan State University have been turning their attention to how we study plant photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the biological process by which plants and algae convert light into storable energy for growth and survival. Quantifying photosynthesis levels can reveal a lot about plant health. For example how efficient is the plant in capturing light energy. How resilient is it in the face of environmental stressors such as drought.

Scientists already have tools to measure photosynthesis. Unfortunately, these tools can be prohibitively expensive or require testing be done in a lab. To address this obstacle, researchers at Michigan University launched Photosynq, an open access project aimed at creating a low-cost hand-held device which would allow anyone and anywhere to measure photosynthesis.

Scientists still have much to learn about plant photosynthesis and crowd sourcing the research can be really helpful. “The way we currently study plants is limited,” explains project manager Greg Austic. “We take one plant, grow it in the lab and examine what happens to that one plant in very controlled conditions. But there are thousands of plant species, and they are growing and surviving outside in their real environment. Creating a device that enables anybody to contribute to this research could really expand our understanding.”

The creators have developed a device small enough to hook up to a cellphone, which comes preloaded with a bank of measurements and protocols for the user to select from. After collecting their data, users can upload their results to an open database. The beauty of the project is that anyone with a phone and an internet connection could use it, meaning its use would not be limited to academic research. The Photosynq team envisions educators using it as a teaching implement to help students learn about plant biology. Or farmers using it to modify planting strategies. And as more people use it, the larger the database grows giving everyone more data to use.

Mining that data could result in some pretty interesting outcomes. For example, researchers might identify a plant with unusually high photosynthesis efficiency. A private citizen might stumble upon a plant that is particularly effective at carbon capture. These potential discoveries could be used to develop new, possibility greener, technologies.

The device and project materials are still in beta and the Photosynq team is interested in getting more input about their project. The developers encourage individuals to sign up to be device beta testers. They are also interested in pre-production input. If there is a measurement or tool that you think would be useful or interesting to have, visit their Google discussion board and let them know. The more feedback they can get, the better the device will meet people’s needs.

At the heart of the project is the philosophy of making science and scientific inquiry more open. “What I think is so great about this project,” Austic explains, “is its mission to create an ecosystem where anyone [be it a senior scientist or a curious seven year old] can ask a science question and engage anyone to answer it.”

Learn more about their project, why it is important, and how you can get involved by visiting.


Dr. Carolyn Graybeal holds a PhD in neuroscience from Brown University. She is a former National Academies of Science Christine Mirzayan Science & Technology Policy Fellow during which time she worked with the Marian Koshland Science Museum. In addition the intricacies of the human brain, she is interested in the influence of education and mass media in society’s understanding of science.