The Internet of Plants: Building a network of cyberplants

The Internet of Plants: Building a network of cyberplants

By Jorge Hurtado

A fascinating side of the Internet of Things is that researchers are currently exploring how to equip plants with nanosensors capable of collecting and transferring data to tell us about their chemical, physical, physiological, and environmental needs. The aim is not only to improve productivity and address global food shortages, but also to make plants work as a united network that can monitor, in a more accurate way, local weather and drastic environmental changes.

Biologically, plants are capable of detecting chemical and physical changes and to some extent deal with imbalances. Plants have the ability to communicate with other plants using fungal networking or, likely, by establishing their own network paths.

Recent advances in the field of nanotechnology offer the possibility to “eavesdrop” on whether plants are lacking nutrients or water content or experiencing problems with cell functioning. We can learn more about what they are communicating to one another when facing potential environmental stress or pathogen attacks as well as about soil and air quality, wind speed, solar strength, or rainfall. The information could help increase productivity, avoid food and water scarcity, and improve the environmental status of the areas where the plants are located.

The concept behind the Internet of Plants:

The Internet of Plants (IoP) builds on the notion that everyday objects can be used to sense the environment around them and communicate. This concept has been further fueled by the active evolution of sensors, both in size and function. For instance, it is now possible to envision nanorobots that can make repairs at the cellular level or clean bacterial toxins from the bloodstream.

Different researchers have tried to develop nanosensors capable of augmenting the capabilities of plants to communicate, capture, and broadcast information through a concatenated network of neighboring cyberplants. The IoP will be composed of a series of cyberplants that will also operate as antennas (“plantennas”) carrying the information across to other plants. Thus, a plantenna, equipped with multiple sensors located in the plant’s vessels, will be able to take readings from the sap flow and the plant’s surroundings and then transmit that information to another plantenna, and so on. The sensors within each plantenna can take advantage of the electrochemical processes occurring inside the plant, using it as their power source and thus avoiding the need for large batteries or external charging.

How the IoP concept was put forward:

When a plant dries out, its leaves start contracting. Initially, sensors small enough to fit on leaves would detect these changes in electrical voltages and indicate when a plant was in need of water. The signals were then transmitted to a central system so the farmers would know when the irrigation system should be turned on or off. A few years later, the PLEASED project put forward a new concept: using microsensors to build cyberplants that communicate with each other. This would be the beginning of the IoP, but the project was only able to implement sensors similar to those that capture brain-muscle interactions after a given stimuli.

This year, the 4TU Federation, a collaboration between four technology universities in the Netherlands (TU Delft, Eindhoven University of Technology, University of Twente, and University of Wageningen), started working on an ambitious multidisciplinary research program. Through coordination by TUDelft, the program brings together state-of-the-art research in each of these fields: sensor technology, microelectronics, nanotechnology, communications, agrobiology, plant physiology, environmental monitoring, and biotechnology. All these disciplines will come together to integrate nanotechnology that will enable plants to communicate with each other while teaching us how to interpret and take advantage of the information.

What information will be broadcasted?

The use of the implanted nanosensors can help to collect and broadcast data related to:  

  • Environmental factors affecting crop production (e.g., drastic temperature changes, floods, droughts, pollution)
  • Addressing health-related factors that affect the normal growth of plants (e.g., nutrient deficiencies,, invasion of pathogens)
  • Increasing crop quality and productivity by making use of resources more efficiently (e.g., less pesticides and fertilizers, improved water conservation)

The IoP is at the early stages of research, but is it plausible? Currently there are nanosensors capable of detecting microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses, and even DNA. Other microdevices can operate as ultrasensitive pressure sensors and react to differential gas activities. These processes are well-known elements of any plant cell activity in terms of osmosis or gas exchange. Thus, it is likely that in the future we will be able to translate biological information into electrical/chemical signals capable of generating binary data that can then tell us what plants are reacting to in their surroundings.

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