Plants, like almost all living organisms, have an internal communication system to respond to external stimuli.
Whether they are exposed to sunlight, pollutants, nutrients or pests, plants react with a tell-tale electrical signal. The PLEASED project is trying to understand these signals and decipher them to devise new "holistic" environmental biosensors.
Andrea Vitaletti, professor of computer engineering at W-LAB of the University of Rome, Italy, who is also the project coordinator, spoke to youris.com about using plants as pollution sensing devices.
First, making music from plants.
Dario Colozza is a sound artist and performer of electronic and contemporary art. In this work, sounds are generated converting the sampled electrical signals from the plant, in morse code, and then pitching them along the range of hear extension to create beats in the low frequencies and very interesting sounds in the high end. Furthermore he used granular synthesis to recreate the tumultuous life inside the plant.
Back to the interview with Vitaletti:
We already have sensors for almost anything. Why should we focus on plants?
Well, because plants evolved over millions of years in a very specific environment. They can react to a lot of different stimuli. They must do so because they cannot run away. So if you use them as biosensors they can be multifunctional. If you have an artificial device, measuring some parameter like temperature or humidity, it will probably be more accurate than the plant. But the plant needs to measure a large number of parameters simultaneously, in order to survive.
So if we could read the signals of the plant we would be able to measure many parameters at the same time.
How do you intend to do that?
What we try to do is to classify the different signals plants produce in order to determine what kind of stimulus has been applied. Imagine you know which electrical pattern is typically produced by a sunflower when it is suffering from drought. Then, you could keep looking for that pattern in sunflowers. The plant will so-to-speak tell you when it wants some water through specific electrical signals.
How to differentiate between different electrical signals, which might occur simultaneously?
That is still a challenge. We simply have to conduct many experiments to recognize the different stimuli. It is going to take lot of work before we can use the plants practically as biosensors.
Why not simply look at how a plant is doing?
This is more convenient. We will interface plants with electronic devices. The plant is turned into a kind of cyborg, or plant-borg if you like. In the vision of the project to develop very small devices, the size of paper clips or even smaller, that will be put in the plant. They can collect the signals generated by the plant in its natural environment, analyze them, combine them with the signals of other plants nearby, and thus produce a clear analysis of the environment of the plant. We know it works, we have proof of concept.
Are there other reasons why we should use plants as botanical sensors?
They are robust for the simple fact that they want to live. They can be extremely cost effective. And they are pervasive; that is to say, they are everywhere.
And what could be practical applications?
They could be used for monitoring pollution of the environment, for example, or acid rain. A very practical application we have in mind is to use plants as certification devices of organic farming. By observing the signals generated by the plants, it should be possible to determine whether or not the farmer has used adequate chemicals. If you want to find out the same thing with artificial devices, you would need quite a number of them.
Where do you hope the project will lead to?
The project finishes in May 2014. By then we will have created the beginning of an open source data set of species of plants, specific stimuli and the corresponding electrical signals. What I hope is that the scientific community will continue to increase the size and the quality of this data set.
Ultimately, it should be something like the Avatar movie: plants and people in close communication about the world they live in.
Fantasy, science fiction, yes, but that’s the popular version of our idea.
- PHYSICAL SCIENCES
- EARTH SCIENCES
- LIFE SCIENCES
- SOCIAL SCIENCES
Subscribe to the newsletter
Stay in touch with the scientific world!
Know Science And Want To Write?
- Kudos To "The Independent" Newspaper For Debunking Nibiru "Blood Moon" Hoax
- USDA Microbiologist Warns Bacteria In Vaping Products May Be A Health Concern
- Your Microbiome Did Not Cause Your Weight Problem
- 20 Cent School Intervention Stops Unhealthy Weight Gain In Children
- Control Cancer By Making The Tumor Cell Environment Hostile
- A Great Blitz Game
- Anomaly!: Book News And A Clip
- "Yes, it's just totally silly and no-one with a decent background in astronomy would give it any..."
- "So your absolutely certain and can absolutely guarantee that its not real mr walker. Charles ..."
- "Great, glad to have helped Michael, thanks :)...."
- "Right. But it can help to pin that down a bit and say what particularly you are worried about...."
- "Interesting Thanks for the helpful information, Robert. You give such insightful and easy to understand..."
- Breast Cancer: Genomics May Show Where Chemo Might Not Be Needed
- Gallup Poll: Great Example of How to Bias a Social Science Study
- Another Kardashian Craze Debunked
- Fad Friday: Ditch The Body Wrap!
- Commonly Cited Stat of 10 Bacteria for Every 1 Human Cell Is Wrong
- Why The EpiPen And Other Generic Drugs Are So Expensive
- Heart failure in the elderly set to triple by 2060
- Up to 80 percent of heart failure patients denied therapy to reduce hospitalization and death
- Increased risk of death for heart failure patients with each NHS hospital admission
- Nebivolol prevents anthracycline-induced cardiotoxicity
- Traffic accidents increased by 50 percent in patients with implantable cardioverter defibrillator