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Friday, May 17, 2024

Taylor Swift: A pop icon, lyrical mastermind and remote plant photosynthesis sensing machine

How the new Plant Optics Lab machine “TSWIFT” could help isolate climate-resilient crops


By SONORA SLATER — science@theaggie.org


Taylor Swift isn’t a stranger to things being named after her — from the millipede species dubbed Nannaria swiftae in 2022, to the entire city of Glendale, Arizona being temporarily renamed Swift City in honor of the kick-off of her Eras Tour this year, it’s safe to say that she’s left a legacy on the world. But in spring 2023, she added a new honor to the list with the creation of the remote sensing instrument for plants known as the Tower Spectrometer on Wheels for Investigating Frequent Timeseries — or for short, TSWIFT. 

Troy Magney, an assistant professor in plant sciences at UC Davis and one of the senior authors on the report about the new technology, is a well-established fan of both plant science and pop music. He worked at NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory as a research scientist developing satellite imaging technology to analyze photosynthesis and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere before becoming curious about how this technology could be repurposed for plant research.

“I got interested in building some sensors [for UC Davis] that could measure similar things to satellites but at a smaller scale; that’s sort of how TSWIFT came about,” Magney said.

Magney said that the UC Davis Plant Optics Lab, which was behind the creation of TSWIFT, uses “optical techniques” to look at plants. In other words, they measure how well the plants are reflecting light, which is tied to how much photosynthesis the plant is doing. 

“The ways that plants reflect light […] can tell us about their health and their stress and their productivity,” Magney said. “We can bring [TSWIFT] out to a field and put it on a tower, and it can look down at the ecosystem and collect data throughout the day and throughout the season so that we can look at the performance of these plants [in response to stress].”

We know the toll stress can take on a person: say, Joe Jonas breaks up with you over the phone in a 27-second phone call, or the masters of your first six albums are sold without your knowledge. Maintaining your productivity and focus would understandably be difficult. But what does it mean for a plant to be “stressed?”

“Basically when I say stress, I mean anything that reduces the plant’s ability to do photosynthesis,” Magney said. “Stress from drought if there’s not enough water in an ecosystem, […] different pathogens, […] stresses coming from temperature, […] bark beetles, wildfire smoke. Stress could come from any number of things […], but normally, I would say drought is the big one in California.”

Essentially, the machine looks for any increase or reduction in photosynthesis for a plant and then the researchers try to understand why that’s happening. 

While it can be used to analyze real-world fields, TSWIFT is primarily meant to be used in experiments: researchers simulate stressful conditions — such as drought — in a field and see which plants perform the best in these subpar conditions. 

“We’ll impose drought stress, for example, by turning off the irrigation for the rest of the season,” Magney said. “Then we’ll be able to track which of these plant genotypes is performing the best under the water-limiting conditions. If you’re trying to choose a genotype of wheat that might be the most productive under future climate change scenarios, the idea is that we simulate what the climate change scenario might be by imposing drought in the controlled field study, and then track which genotypes of wheat would perform best.”

Taylor Swift is also known for planning things out far in advance, from the perfectly curated Reputation-era social media rebrand to planting lyrics from her album Midnights in a speech she gave at NYU months before the album’s release. If plant researchers are able to do the same sort of forward-thinking planning when it comes to preparing crops for climate change, the agriculture-dependent California economy would likely benefit.

TSWIFT builds on previous work UC Davis researchers have done to try to preemptively adapt agriculture to changing climate conditions. The main advantage of the new technology is that it saves time, and allows for data to be collected on both a day-to-day and long-term basis. 

“We can begin to see when a plant might be undergoing stress, and we can see that at a daily resolution,” Magney said. “Historically, you would assess the performance of plants just by walking out in the field every day and making some measurements of photosynthesis on the plants, which is very time-consuming and labor intensive, and the idea with TSWIFT is that we can just deploy the instrument and monitor it all remotely.” 

In future versions of the technology, Magney said that he hopes the technology will be able to take measurements at night or in cloudy conditions by using blue LEDs to shine light on the plants. Eventually, he plans to equip TSWIFT with a thermal imager to measure how much water plants are using by analyzing their temperatures. 

Magney worked on the project and the paper alongside Chris Wong, Taylor Jones, Devin McHugh, Matthew Gilbert, Paul Gepts, Antonia Palkovic and Thomas N. Buckley. In a highly relatable move, he streamed ‘folklore’ on repeat while building the machine. But his true favorite Taylor song?

“Well, I’m not sure if it’s appropriate for print,” Magney said. “But it would have to be Vigilante Shit.”


Written by: Sonora Slater — science@theaggie.org