Plants have a communication system of electrical signals that activate in response to external stimuli — these signals are a valuable form of data, produced by plants only when they are exposed to sunlight, pollutants, nutrients or pests. PLEASED is a project from the W-Lab of the University of Rome, Italy focused on gathering raw data from plants out in nature in order to create meaningful interpretations from these signals in an ambitious attempt to leverage plants as biosensors. Should the researchers succeed, plants could become valuable and ubiquitous living sources of data that feed us information about changes in the environment, which leads to a variety of useful applications.
Data that plants, as biosensors, would be able to measure include a variety of chemical and physical parameters, such as pollution, temperature, humidity, sunlight, acid rain, and the presence of chemicals in organic agriculture or even the amount of pollution in the air. While many may argue that highly advanced artificial manmade sensors such as this already exist to measure all of these specific parameters with exceptional accuracy, interesting new insights may be found from the complex signals put out by plants. Furthermore, unlike artificial devices, plants are ubiquitous, robust, cheap, do not require calibration, and well, are actually part of nature itself – what we are trying to understand.
Andrea Vitaletti, professor of computer engineering at W-LAB of the University of Rome, Italy:
What we try to do is to classify the different signals plants produce in order to determine what kind 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. The plant will so-to-speak tell you when it wants some water through specific electrical signals.
The very reason using actual plants as biosensors is fascinating also presents the biggest challenge to the researchers, as interpreting the varied signals from the plants will make it difficult to differentiate between the many electrical signals that may occur simultaneously. Should PLEASED be successful in making sense of the data and finding consistent results, the team plans to develop tiny electronic devices (the size of paperclips) that can attached to the plant to collect signals generated in its natural environment. The data from this signal within a network of plants in the same area can lead to a clear analysis of changes within the environment that can impact everything from the monitoring of pollution to the certification of devices for organic farming. For example, by analyzing signals generated by the plants, it should be possible to determine whether or not the farmer has used adequate chemicals.
According to PLEASED, an open source data set of the specific stimuli and corresponding electrical signals for many plant species will be available by May 2014. Ideally, scientific teams will continue to add to and improve the quality of the data set which will hopefully lead to a rapid evolution in the effectiveness of the technology. Whether or not the concept proves to be easy to replicate, the concept of gathering data from the environment itself can lead to interesting research in the future.