New DIY Kit from Backyard Brains Tests Plant Behavior, Communication

Back in the 1970s, a nonfiction book called “The Secret Life of Plants” took the world by storm. Both my mother and grandmother owned a copy, and being a child with a voracious appetite for books, I took a peek inside.

The book described the emotional and spiritual inner life of plants and recommended ways people could “communicate” with them to make them grow better. It was pretty heavy on the woo, but to a family that took its houseplants fairly seriously, it made for fascinating reading.

According to Greg Gage, neuroscientist and co-founder of Backyard Brains, an Ann Arbor, MI-based edtech company aiming to create a nation of DIY citizen scientists by selling fun tools and experiments to get them started, “The Secret Life of Plants” was also a load of pseudoscience.

The last time we covered Backyard Brains, in 2015, we talked about its Robo Roach kits, which allowed young scientists to transform an unassuming cockroach into a remote-controlled cyborg. Just in time for the holiday season, the company has a new electrophysiology project for sale called the Plant Spiker Box that enables humans to effect interspecies plant-to-plant communication between Venus flytraps  and Mimosa plants.

Since “The Secret Life of Plants” was first published in 1973, the scientific community has warmed up to the idea that plants might possess a kind of networked intelligence that humans are only just beginning to understand. In 2013, Michael Pollan wrote an article for the New Yorker that highlighted some of the new findings regarding what the author called plant neurobiology.

“There’s still a heavy amount of skepticism in the field, and scientists using the term neurobiology [in reference to plants] probably doesn’t help,” Gage says. “Mostly, it’s European scientists that are more OK with it.”

What is true about plant behavior is that it’s a lot more complicated than scientists perhaps first imagined. In 2016, a researcher named Monica Gagliano published a paper in the journal Nature on associative learning in pea pods. In it, she described experiments that utilized external cues to “train” pea pods to grow in specific conditions based on their recollection of where light was found in the past, demonstrating that associative learning is an essential component of plant behavior.

After the paper was published, Gage and the Backyard Brains team sought to replicate some of her studies using simplified tools. “We were 100 percent able to re-create it,” he says. The results informed the development of the new Plant Spiker Box, which allows experimenters to discover how Venus flytraps detect and capture prey, how the sensitive Mimosa plant reacts in real time to touch, and how triggering one plant through external stimuli can control the behavior of another plant. (To see exactly how the experiment works, check out Gage’s TED talk from earlier this year.)

Because the field of plant behavior is wide open, Gage says it’s perfect for DIY science experiments. “The mechanism isn’t well understood, but we can provide the tools so people can investigate on a deep level,” he adds.

Since the Charles Darwin era in the mid-1800s, we’ve known that plants communicate through electrochemical messages. Scientists first made this discovery while observing the Venus flytrap in the wild. One of the last carnivorous plants discovered, the Venus flytrap was native only to a small area in North Carolina, Gage says, which made it an evolutionary anomaly.

“They noticed that when a bug landed on it, the leaves would spring shut,” he explains, but the plant wouldn’t act the same way if, for example, a piece of debris or other non-prey material landed on the leaves. Today, scientists know the leaves close after tiny … Next Page »

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Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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