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?
- Wait, Let's Not Be In Such A Rush To Go Multiplanetary Or Interstellar - A Comment On Elon Musk's Vision
- New Cochrane Review On E-Cigarettes
- Chemical Weapons Are Still Being Used In Iraq But The Obama Administration Doesn't Talk About It
- Americans Are More Politically Independent, More Polarized Than Ever
- No Go Area! What? What is that?
- Global Warming Has Made Global Warming Harder To Show
- Hubble Spots Europa Geysers Again - How They Did It - And What Next? Flyby? Lander?
- "Thanks for your support. I hope so also :)...."
- "hey mr walker this is history of nibiru it's over. now let´s make these sensationalist sites not..."
- "Yes, it is made up by people who don't understand basic ideas in astronomy and must have flunked..."
- "Yes, but you can argue the other way. It is not real and can't be real, because it's impossible..."
- "and the story of nibiru ?? It is fake?..."
- Littlest Consumers Doing Well, Nutrition-wise
- Herpes Vaccine Update: Exciting News, But Don't Throw Away the Condoms Just Yet
- Ben & Jerry’s Asks Us to Take Big Lick of Fear & Hype
- A Cocktail of Wild Viruses Treats Bacterial Wound Infections in Mice
- The Scientific Advisors at Theranos Won't (or Can't) Talk
- Suppressing Coughs at Tonight's Presidential Debate