Many claim that talking to plants helps them grow faster. But what if the plants could talk back? That’s what the EU-funded PLants Employed As SEnsing Devices (PLEASED) project is hoping to achieve by creating plant cyborgs, or "plant-borgs." While this technology won't allow green thumbs to carry on a conversation with their plants, it will provide feedback on their environment by enabling the plants to act as biosensors.
Like most living organisms, plants produce electrical signals in response to external stimuli. By classifying which electrical signals are produced in response to which stimulus, the PLEASED team says will be possible to use plants as biosensors to measure a variety of chemical and physical parameters, such as pollution, temperature, humidity, sunlight, acid rain, and the presence of chemicals in organic agriculture.
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In an interview with youris.com, project coordinator Andrea Vitaletti admits that there are already artificial devices capable of measuring such parameters, but plants are everywhere, cheap, robust and don't require calibration. They are also able to measure multiple parameters simultaneously. This is both a plus and a minus because it will make it more difficult to differentiate between different electrical signals that occur simultaneously.
If the electrical signals can be deciphered, the team plans to develop small electronic devices, the size of paperclips or smaller, that will be embedded in the plant to collect signals generated in its natural environment. By collecting the signals of a network of plants in the same area, Vitaletti says it will be possible to produce a clear analysis of the environment. He cites pollution monitoring and certification devices for organic farming as just two of the practical applications envisaged for the technology.
Vitaletti says an open source data set of the specific stimuli and corresponding electrical signals for a number plant species will have been started by the time the PLEASED project winds up in May 2014. He hopes that other scientific teams will continue to add to and improve the quality of the data set in the future, so as to enhance the effectiveness of the technology.
The following video gives and overview of the PLEASED project's goals.