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Researchers Develop Device That Can ‘Communicate’ with Plants

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A team of researchers from Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) has developed a device that can deliver electrical signals to and from plants, allowing a path for communication.

The device, detailed in 2 separate papers in Nature Electronics and Advanced Materials, will not exactly let you speak to your sunflowers, however, it can monitor how the plant responds to its environment, and send movement instructions to the plant.

To accomplish this feat, the researchers had to figure out how to measure the electrical signals emitted by plants. Normally, electrical stimulation is done through electrodes, but they could not be used in this case since the plant’s hairy and bumpy surface made it hard for electrodes to stay attached. To tackle this issue, the researchers developed a gel-like “morphable” electrode that could attach to the surface of the plant.

At the point When the morphable electrode was tested on a Venus flytrap, it effectively relayed the signals the plant was emitting. But the scientists did not stop there and experimented with actually “talking” with the plant.

They were successful in getting the plant to close its leaves on demand when they pulsed a specific frequency through the electrode. 

“The device can now stick to more types of plant surfaces, and more securely so, marking an important step forward in the field of plant electrophysiology,” said co-lead author of the Advanced Materials study Professor Loh Xian Jun in a statement. “It opens up new opportunities for plant-based technologies.”

The scientists hope that their work will assist with active crop monitoring devices that could help to combat food insecurity because of climate change.

“By monitoring the plants’ electrical signals, we may be able to detect possible distress signals and abnormalities,” said lead author Professor Chen Xiaodong. “When used for agriculture [purpose], farmers may find out when a disease is in progress, even before full‑blown symptoms appear on the crops, such as yellowed leaves. This may provide us the opportunity to act quickly to maximize crop yield for the population.” 

In addition, this technology could have applications in robotics. Researchers could make plant-based robots that — could gently pick up fragile objects.

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