Growth Monitor pi: an open monitoring system for plant science

Plant scientists and agronomists use growth chambers to provide consistent growing conditions for the plants they study. This reduces confounding variables – inconsistent temperature or light levels, for example – that could render the results of their experiments less meaningful. To make sure that conditions really are consistent both within and between growth chambers, which minimises experimental bias and ensures that experiments are reproducible, it’s helpful to monitor and record environmental variables in the chambers.

A neat grid of small leafy plants on a black plastic tray. Metal housing and tubing is visible to the sides.

Arabidopsis thaliana in a growth chamber on the International Space Station. Many experimental plants are less well monitored than these ones.
(“Arabidopsis thaliana plants […]” by Rawpixel Ltd (original by NASA) / CC BY 2.0)

In a recent paper in Applications in Plant Sciences, Brandin Grindstaff and colleagues at the universities of Missouri and Arizona describe how they developed Growth Monitor pi, or GMpi: an affordable growth chamber monitor that provides wider functionality than other devices. As well as sensing growth conditions, it sends the gathered data to cloud storage, captures images, and generates alerts to inform scientists when conditions drift outside of an acceptable range.

The authors emphasise – and we heartily agree – that you don’t need expertise with software and computing to build, use, and adapt a system like this. They’ve written a detailed protocol and made available all the necessary software for any researcher to build GMpi, and they note that commercial solutions with similar functionality range in price from $10,000 to $1,000,000 – something of an incentive to give the DIY approach a go.

GMpi uses a Raspberry Pi Model 3B+, to which are connected temperature-humidity and light sensors from our friends at Adafruit, as well as a Raspberry Pi Camera Module.

The team used open-source app Rclone to upload sensor data to a cloud service, choosing Google Drive since it’s available for free. To alert users when growing conditions fall outside of a set range, they use the incoming webhooks app to generate notifications in a Slack channel. Sensor operation, data gathering, and remote monitoring are supported by a combination of software that’s available for free from the open-source community and software the authors developed themselves. Their package GMPi_Pack is available on GitHub.

With a bill of materials amounting to something in the region of $200, GMpi is another excellent example of affordable, accessible, customisable open labware that’s available to researchers and students. If you want to find out how to build GMpi for your lab, or just for your greenhouse, Affordable remote monitoring of plant growth in facilities using Raspberry Pi computers by Brandin et al. is available on PubMed Central, and it includes appendices with clear and detailed set-up instructions for the whole system.

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