Astrobotany Research Drives Invention and Can Also Be Difficult…

Yesterday, myself and some other members of the lab headed over to the very cool Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery building (the “WID”) to do some learning.

WID astrobotany Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery
Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery; UW-Madison

The learning in question was a quick course on the basics of a new research device. One of our very talented engineers, Jerry Miao, is developing a much needed timelapse plant imaging device called FlashLapse for plant biology research.

astrobotany flashlapse
an old flashlapse prototype (it has come a long way in a short time)

FlashLapse is a really neat piece of equipment that contains motors, LED lights, and an arduino controller and raspberry pi camera.  It takes high definition photographs of plants in petri dishes over a specified time period.  Why do we need this?  A lot of us bench biologists in the lab are interested in working with mutant plants.  For instance, we know the TOUCH-2 (Tch-2) gene is manipulated by spaceflight.  So now we’re interested if the plant grows differently or if the root patterns are different if we manipulate Tch-2.  We want to take a look at the plant growing over time and we even have software to measure physical growth patterns of the plants.

We gathered in the WID’s outreach/engineering lab and Dr. Richard Barker had us all make biologist and engineer pairs.  I got lucky and was assigned Jerry (the inventor of the device) as my engineer. Learning it was going to be a walk in the park since Jerry literally built the thing from scratch… but Richard noticed and told Jerry not to help me.  Jerry and I talked and I was amazed at how far FlashLapse had come.  I remember working with his first prototype back in late 2016.

We learned the basics of FlashLapse code in that session, changing brightness and color of LED lights for the plants as well as programming the motor to move for gravitropism assays.  You can pretty much create whatever lighting you want, which is useful because plants grow differently under different color lighting.

I was very proud to see a device that was a product of our lab.  As a molecular biologist in the lab, often the results I get take months and are more or less intangible.  It was relieving to see our engineers create a powerful tool.  Maybe I should have become an engineer… but nah, Wisconsin’s engineering program is too rigorous.

Let’s grow plants in space.

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