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Studying crops, from outer space

24 March 2014

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Plants convert energy from sunlight into chemical energy during a process called photosynthesis. This energy is passed on to humans and animals that eat the plants, and thus photosynthesis is the primary source of energy for all life on Earth.

But the photosynthetic activity of various regions is changing due to human interaction with the environment, including climate change, which makes large-scale studies of photosynthetic activity of interest. New research from a team including Carnegie's Joe Berry reveals a fundamentally new approach for measuring photosynthetic activity as it occurs around the planet. It is published this week by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Their work is based on a breakthrough in the capacity to use satellite technology to measure light that is emitted by plant leaves as a byproduct of photosynthesis. This light is called fluorescence and it is produced when sunlight excites the photosynthetic pigment chloropyll. The method offers a direct measurement of activity occurring as the satellite passes overhead. Other approaches to detecting photosynthetic activity on a large scale are less direct, so until now, models have been the primary tool for estimating photosynthetic productivity on a planetary scale. The accuracy of these models has been difficult to evaluate.

Source: Carnegie Institution for Science

Image credit: Keck Institute for Space Studies - Illustration of photosynthesis measuring from space