‘Cyborg plants’ to help watch out for environmental damage

Engineers in Italy are attempting to develop ‘cyborg plant’ sensors that harness nature’s ability to detect environmental changes.

The team from the University of Rome plans is building electronic devices that can read the electrical signals generated by living plants as they react to changes in their environment, as part of  Plants Employed As Sensing Devices (PLEASED) project funded by the EU’s FP7 programme.

Although these ‘plant-borg’ sensors are unlikely to be as accurate as artificial ones, they could be better at monitoring multiple changes such as humidity and temperature at the same time with a simple, cheap and robust device, the researchers claim.

‘They could be used for monitoring pollution of the environment, for example, or acid rain,’ said project coordinator Prof Andrea Vitaletti in a statement from the European Research Media Centre.

‘A very practical application we have in mind is to use plants as certification devices of organic farming. By observing the signals generated by the plants, it should be possible to determine whether or not the farmer has used adequate chemicals.

If you want to find out the same thing with artificial devices, you would need quite a number of them.’

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The researchers have connected signal-harvesting devices to sample plants using needle electrodes.

So far the researchers have been developing a database of the electrical signals from different plants in response to various environmental stimuli, which they plan to make publicly available for others to add to.

To collect these signals, they have built two circuit board devices that can be connected to a plant sample using needle electrodes, using a Faraday cage to protect against interference from unwanted external signals.

Eventually, they hope this proof of concept could lead to simple, paperclip-sized devices that can be permanently attached to a plant.

‘They can collect the signals generated by the plant in its natural environment, analyse them, combine them with the signals of other plants nearby, and thus produce a clear analysis of the environment of the plant,’ said Vitaletti.