An artifact created by researchers from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University is capable of communicating with plants using electrical signals. In this way, you can make the plant close the leaves or take a wire, among other functions. By integrating it with a robotic arm, the new technology enables plant movements to be managed with an electrode and a smart mobile phone.
Precisely by placing an adaptable and specially designed electrode on the surface of a Venus flytrap plant, the researchers were able to capture electrical signals to monitor how the plant responds to its environment and transmit these signals to the plant to make it close its leaves. The electrode, made up of a piece of conductive material, was adhered to the surface of the fly trap used by the carnivorous plant through a hydrogel.
They also connected the specimen to a robotic arm and, using a smartphone and the previously mentioned electrode, stimulated its blade to close and pick up a piece of wire half a millimeter in diameter. The innovation could open the doors to new technologies and applications based on the plant world, in addition to providing details on the electrical communication system used by the plants.
A communication system
Although the ability of plant species to use electrical signals in order to obtain information from the environment is known, the knowledge of this communicational system and its implications has not yet been deepened. According to a Press release, the ability to accurately measure electrical signals from plants could have significant technological advantages.
For Asian researchers, the optimization of devices such as the one developed in the new study could lead to the arrival of a wide variety of useful new applications, such as plant-inspired robots for different uses or devices that improve food safety through detection early disease in crops.
The researchers, who summarize their work in two articles published in the journals Advanced Materials and Nature Electronics, had to overcome a major stumbling block: the difficulties of capturing electrical signals in plants. To achieve this, it is vital to incorporate a device that is in direct contact with the plant.
They achieved this on the fly trap as previously indicated, and for this the incorporation of a hydrogel with specific conditions was crucial, which guaranteed the adherence of the device. The artifact has a diameter of 3 millimeters and does not affect any vital process in the plant, such as photosynthesis.
It is important to highlight that the optimization of this new technology could allow an early diagnosis of different diseases and anomalies that affect crops destined for human consumption.
In other words, the device would be able to intelligently communicate with the plant and monitor any reaction that could indicate a pathology to be treated and resolved.
In the same sense, it would allow producers to evaluate the progress of the crops and the way in which the solutions developed for any problem are impacting them, preventing unwanted consequences in products designed for food use.
For specialists, this would be a very useful application considering that the inconveniences linked to climate change, increasing environmental and industrial pollution and other aspects have considerably increased health problems in crops, consequently affecting food safety.
A Morphable Ionic Electrode Based on Thermogel for Non‐Invasive Hairy Plant Electrophysiology. Yifei Luo et al. Advanced Materials (2021).DOI:https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.202007848
An on-demand plant-based actuator created using conformable electrodes. Li, W., Matsuhisa, N., Liu, Z. et al. Nature Electronics (2021).DOI:https://doi.org/10.1038/s41928-020-00530-4
Trap of a Venus flytrap plant (Dionaea muscipula). Image: Wikimedia Commons.
Video: Nanyang Technological University.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.