Photosynthesize This

via JPL
So there is this joke we have, about how being the one government agency that routinely does its job … never mind. At any rate, NASA would have you know:

Data from satellite sensors show that during the Northern Hemisphere’s growing season, the Midwest region of the United States boasts more photosynthetic activity than any other spot on Earth, according to NASA and university scientists.

Healthy plants convert light to energy via photosynthesis, but chlorophyll also emits a fraction of absorbed light as a fluorescent glow that is invisible to the naked eye. The magnitude of the glow is an excellent indicator of the amount of photosynthesis, or gross productivity, of plants in a given region.

Research in 2013, led by Joanna Joiner of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., demonstrated that fluorescence from plants could be teased out from existing data from satellites that were designed and built for other purposes. The new research, led by Luis Guanter of the Freie Universität Berlin, used the data for the first time to estimate photosynthesis from agriculture. Results were published March 25 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

According to co-author Christian Frankenberg of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., “The paper shows that fluorescence is a much better proxy for agricultural productivity than anything we’ve had before. This can go a long way regarding monitoring—and maybe even predicting—regional crop yields.”

Guanter, Joiner and Frankenberg launched their collaboration at a 2012 workshop, hosted by the Keck Institute for Space Studies at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, to explore measurements of photosynthesis from space. The team noticed that on an annual basis, the tropics are the most active in photosynthesis. But during the Northern Hemisphere’s growing season, the U.S. Corn Belt “really stands out,” Frankenberg said. “Areas all over the world are not as productive as this area.”

You are allowed to be impressed. It really is cool, after all.
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Jet Propulsion Laboratory. “Satellite Shows High Productivity from U.S. Corn Belt”. March 31, 2014.

(Tip o’the hat to S.L.)

Sheep Trip

“From another direction he felt the sensation of being a sheep startled by a flying saucer, but it was virtually indistinguishable from the feeling of being a sheep startled by anything else it ever encountered, for they were creatures who learned very little on their journey through life, and would be startled to see the sun rising in the morning, and astonished by all the green stuff in the fields.”

—Douglas Adams

And now they glow in the dark. No, really. Okay, only sort of:

Scientists in Uruguay have genetically modified sheep to glow in the dark. The fluorescent sheep are a world first, the scientists report.

GlowSheep-greenThe flock of nine lambs was born last October at a farm belonging to the Animal Reproduction Institute of Uruguay, an nonprofit organization affiliated with the Pasteur Institute’s genetically modified animals unit. The laboratory incorporated a green fluorescence protein into the genes of the sheep, which will glow when exposed to certain ultraviolet light, making the the ruminants easily identifiable as genetically modified.

Other than glowing green in UV light, the sheep look and behave normally. Scientists modified the sheep’s genes with the fluorescent protein of the Aequarea jellyfish.

“We did not use a protein of medical interest or to help with a particular medicine because we wanted to fine-tune the technique. We used the green protein because the color is easily identifiable in the sheep’s tissues,” said Alejo Menchaca, the head of the research team.

And there you have it.

(We might also note that it makes a decent pitch to the younger generation: Study hard, and you, too, can make random animals glow in the dark. I mean, come on, with that kind of career path? Boundless potential.)