Over the millions of years that plants have evolved, they’ve reacted to multitudes of stimuli for the sheer fact that they can’t get up and walk away. In doing so, vegetation releases tell-tale electrical signals that researchers believed can be harnessed to effectively turn plants into biosensors.
An EU-funded project called PLEASED (PLants Employed As SEnsing Devices) seeks to decipher this language in hopes that such electrical signals could measure pollution levels, monitor organic farms and carry out weather research.
Andrea Vitaletti, project coordinator and professor of computer engineering at the W-LAB of the University of Rome, told Youris.com the group wants to classify the different signals plants produce to determine what type 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,” he said. “The plant will so-to-speak tell you when it wants some water through specific electrical signals.”
As for what the interface will look like, Vitaletti imagines embedding tiny electronic sensors into plants.
“The plant is turned into a kind of cyborg, or plant-borg if you like. [It's] the vision of the project to develop very small devices, the size of paperclips or even smaller, that will be put in the plant,” he said. “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.”
The project ends in May 2014, but Vitaletti says by then the group will have created the start of an open-source data set that includes species of plants, specific stimuli and corresponding electrical signals.
“What I hope is that the scientific community will continue to increase the size and the quality of this data set,” he said. “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.”