Hyperspectral Imaging Monitors Crop Photosynthesis

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Credit: Image courtesy of Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Researchers at the University of Illinois have conducted research into the photosynthetic performance of plants throughout the growing season, with the use of Hyperspectral Imaging.  Hyperspectal sensors were installed onto twelve-foot metal poles in a soybean field, which measured an invisible array of light emitted by the crops.

Kaiyu Guan, Assistant Professor at the College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) and the Principal Investigator of the project says “Photosynthetic performance is a key trait to monitor as it directly translates to yield potential, this method enables us to rapidly and non-destructively monitor how well plants perform in various conditions like never before.”

Published in the Journal of Geophysical Research — Biogeosciences, the Illinois team led by Guofang Miao, a Postdoctoral Researcher in ACES and the lead author of the paper, report the first continuous field season to use Sun Induced Fluorescence (SIF) data to determine how soybeans respond to fluctuating light levels and environmental stresses.

“Since the recent discovery of using satellite SIF signals to measure photosynthesis, scientists have been exploring the potential to apply SIF technology to better agricultural ecosystems,” said study collaborator Carl Bernacchi, an associate professor of plant science at the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology (IGB). “This research advances our understanding of crop physiology and SIF at a local scale, which will pave the way for satellite observations to monitor plant health and yields over vast areas of cropland.”

One to two percent of the energy absorbed by the plant is emitted as fluorescent light, this is directly proportional to the rate of photosynthesis. Photosynthesis is the process of the plant converting light energy into sugars and carbohydrates, this later becomes our food and biofuel.

Researchers capture this process using hyperspectral sensors to detect fluctuations in photosynthesis over the growing season. They designed this continuous study to better understand the relationship between absorbed light, emitted fluorescent light, and the rate of photosynthesis. “We want to find out whether this proportional relationship is consistent across various ecosystems, especially between crops and wild ecosystems such as forests and savannas,” said Miao.

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“We are also testing the applicability of this technology for crop phenotyping to link key traits with their underlying genes,” said co-author Katherine Meacham, a postdoctoral researcher at the IGB.

“SIF technology can help us transform phenotyping from a manual endeavor requiring large teams of researchers and expensive equipment to an efficient, automated process,” said co-author Caitlin Moore, also a postdoctoral researcher at the IGB.

A network of SIF sensors has been deployed across the U.S. to evaluate croplands and other natural ecosystems. Guan’s lab has launched two other long-term SIF systems in Nebraska to compare rainfed and irrigated fields in corn-soybean rotations. “By applying this technology to different regions, we can ensure the efficacy of this tool in countless growing conditions for a myriad of plants,” said Xi Yang, Assistant Professor at the University of Virginia, who designed this study’s SIF monitoring system.

“Our ability to link SIF data at the leaf, canopy and regional scales will facilitate the improvement of models that forecast crop yields,” Guan said. “Our ultimate goal is to monitor the photosynthetic efficiency of any field across the world to evaluate crop conditions and forecast crop yields on a global scale in real time.”

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