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Summary:

Can we turn ordinary plants into sensors, in order to learn more about the environment? A bunch of European researchers with nearly $1.5 million in funding think it can be done.

Plant torture
photo: euronews

Here’s something weird to think about this weekend: what if we could get bushes and trees to tell us about the environment around them?

That is the aim of a Spanish-Italian-British project called PLEASED (PLants Employed As SEnsing Devices), which has €1.07 million ($1.46 million) in EU funding and is currently being shown off by the European Commission as an example of taxpayers’ euros going to work in, er, interesting ways.

The PLEASED plan goes roughly like this: plants are effectively environmental sensors and they communicate with one another, so if we can learn to read the electrical signals they emit in reaction to stimuli, we can actually start using them as sensors. As Italian biologist Stefano Mancuso put it in a Euronews video:

“Each electrical message corresponds to a specific environmental parameter. If we can break the code, we will have a Rosetta Stone for plants which will tell us what plants are sensing.”

It’s sort of a plant equivalent of the human brain-reading EEG. So far, the team has been doing things like burning leaves (see picture above), presumably to unscramble the plant word for “ouch.” There are loads of readings the scientists think they’ll be able to take in the future – temperature, humidity, reactions to chemicals and air pollution — and the best thing is that one plant can theoretically do the job of multiple man-made sensors. Aggregate the data from a community of plants, and you’ve got a lot to work with.

What’s particularly neat about the program is that its schematics are all open, as are the datasets it’s compiling and the Python code needed to visualize the data. The components are cheap and familiar too (Arduino, anyone?) – the scientists hope to design a plant-reading kit that hobbyists and agriculturalists can put to good use.

Prince Charles will no doubt be overjoyed.

  1. That technology might give us very valuable insights into the death of honeybees, and which environments won’t poison them!

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  2. The authors takes a rather cynical view of what is really good basic science research. Who knows what they will discover and where it will lead?

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    1. I wasn’t trying to be cynical – I think it’s a great idea, just weird. I like it when people pursue great, weird ideas.

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