PLEASED project working on “plant-borgs” to act as environmental biosensors

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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.

From PLEASED: Plants have amazing and significant sensing capabilities. For instance, each single root apex can simultaneously and continuously monitor many chemical and physical parameters. Natural organisms, including human beings, have often inspired works of science and science fiction on how to augment their abilities or interface them with machines. As a remarkable example, electroencephalography (EEG) enables the transduction of electrical activity in the brain into machine understandable signals of non-verbalised patterns. In this project, we plan to extend this approach to the realm of plants, shifting focus from interfacing a single entity (e.g. a human brain that controls a prosthetic device) to a network of entities (a community of plants) that renders an orchestrated response to the environment in which it lives.

While artificial sensing devices exist that can monitor environmental parameters of interest, such as temperature or humidity, the focus of our research will be on the use of plants themselves as sensing and decision-making devices. The holistic approach we propose is novel: while plants as bio-sensors have been the object of previous studies, prior work has focused on the study of the sensing capabilities of individual plants in a controlled laboratory environment.

In contrast, we plan to consider real field scenarios (e.g. a forest or a meadow) in which plants often receive uncontrollable and unpredictable stimuli. We will consider the case of multiple points of observations, in which readings from several plants are collected over a wireless network and integrated in a suitable way to obtain a consistent and global view of an environment of interest. Eco-compatible, self-sustainable and cost effective plant-based solutions will be studied to tackle two relevant problems of the modern society: air pollution and the use of chemicals in organic agriculture.

We are used to thinking of plants as inanimate objects. A nice aphorism well describes our vision: “One day you will step into the garden to look at the flowers – and the flowers will look back at you”. Even more interestingly, we also claim that plants will gossip about you!

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“PLEASED project working on “plant-borgs” to act as environmental biosensors”