Bloombas and Suction Flowers, Plantennas, and the Wood Wide Web… plants that serve, sense, and communicate for the benefit of humans invoke visions of H.P. Lovecraft meets Disney. Emerging research in the concept of “smart plants” presents a garden variety of opportunities for new academic programs with broad appeal across institutional sectors and disciplines.
In the future, smart plants could branch out to integrate humans, computers, and plants into an interconnected ecosystem. The multidisciplinary growth potential for academic programs will knock your stalks off.
Putting the Petal to the Metal
Phytotechnology is the science of using plants to alleviate environmental issues. Phytoremediation is a form of phytotechnology where plants, called hyperaccumulators, remove, degrade, or stabilize pollutants in soil or water. Over 500 species of plants are believed to be natural hyperaccumulators. Others can be engineered to become ones.
Phytoremediation can be a safe, cost-effective way to clean up polluted sites. Imagine a Superfund site covered with a field of flowers instead of chemicals and construction equipment. The science is still developing, however, and issues remain. Higher education can play a role by training environmental scientists, botanists, agronomists, and bioengineers to advance phytoremediation research and initiatives. Essentially, by putting the petal to the metal, plants may be able to solve pressing environmental issues in new and exciting ways.
Soldier Plants Sense Danger
If you are a soldier about to enter dangerous territory, your favorite recon tool might be a dandelion named Katniss Evergreen.
Plants have natural sensing capabilities and give off signals when exposed to certain environmental conditions or stimuli. Some signals are easy to see, such as leaves on a rhododendron which curl when they need water. Plants send out non-visual signals as well. Researchers from the University of Warsaw and the University of Missouri found that plants, in this case, dandelions, can send electrical signals to nearby plants to warn of danger in the field and avoid an “ambush.”
Plants can monitor threats to humans as well. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is investigating military applications of using plants as environmental sensors. A field of genetically engineered plants could alert soldiers to the presence of chemical weapons or radioactive materials before troops ever set foot in the area. In the home, plants might one day be used to sense motion or sniff out disease.
For colleges and universities, sensing plants presents opportunities for research and new programs in such diverse disciplines as plant sciences, bioengineering, and computer science.
An Internet of Plants
When life gives you lemons, turn them into radio stations.
Merging computers and plants to create “plantennas” that emit data about crops has growing applications in agriculture. Researchers in Greece recently turned lemons into miniature radio stations that broadcast information about their moisture content to farmers’ smartphones. An Israeli company, PhyTech, uses direct plant sensing and data analytics to provide farmers with color-coded views of their crop fields so they can treat and irrigate crops with precision.
The opportunities in this area for higher education are not confined to just agricultural schools.
Researchers from Cornell University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Arizona, and the Boyce Thompson Institute are exploring the concept of an Internet of Plants that could “revolutionize crop performance.” The Center for Research on Programmable Plant Systems (CROPPS) is comprised of experts across departments, including plant sciences, engineering, computer science, and the social sciences.
The Wood Wide Web
The next time you walk in the forest, think about the vast plant systems underneath your feet. More than 300 miles of mycelium may be paying attention to each step.
Researchers are exploring the possibility of an interconnected communication system under the forest floor. They theorize that plants and fungi share resources and information in a vast underground social network, a Nextdoor for plants. In fact, these networks are believed to have been around long before humans. “Mother Trees” act as centralized servers, with fungi and their little mycelium as the connective thread.
Researchers from Stanford University and Switzerland’s Crowther Lab recently produced the first global map of a subterranean fungi network using massive data sets on forest tree plots and machine learning. For colleges and universities, the concept of a wood wide web presents academic research and program opportunities connecting disciplines such as ecology, biology, botany, mycology, data science, and chemistry.
An Emerging STEM
As research into plants and plant systems advances, careers in “STEM” could take on a whole new meaning. As an emerging program area, smart plants offer multidisciplinary program opportunities across disciplines and award levels.
Though research in smart plants is still evolving and relatively speculative, it may be worth taking a leaf of faith.