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Which Is More “Intelligent”?

A few years ago, when the iPhone 4 was first introduced by Steve Jobs, I mused on Which is more intelligent? An iPhone or a plant?

Over the course five successive posts, we explored most of the iPhone’s different sensors and compared analogous environmental sensors in plants.

And, in the end, what did I conclude? (Please see here for the answer.)

Well, currently Apple is up to the iPhone 6.

Is the iPhone 6 more “intelligent” than the “garden variety” plant?

To borrow from a previous post…

Intelligence is often defined as an entity’s ability to adapt to a new environment or to changes in the current environment.

Intelligence is not a term commonly used when plants are discussed. However, I believe that this is an omission based not on a true assessment of the ability of plants to compute complex aspects of their environment, but solely a reflection of a sessile lifestyle.” (from Ref. 1 below)

If the new iPhone is better at sensing its environment than a typical plant, then does it follow that the iPhone 6 is more “intelligent” than the average plant?

So, of course, the critical question: Is the iPhone 6 better than plants at environmental sensing?

According to the Apple website, the new iPhone 6 has the following sensors:

Three-axis gyro, Accelerometer, Proximity sensor, Ambient light sensor, Barometer, Touch ID

The first four of these sensors were featured on the iPhone 4, so I’ve already compared them to analogous sensors in plants in a previous series of posts.

But there are two new sensors on the iPhone 6 – the Touch ID and the Barometer.

So, I guess that means it’s time for a….REMATCH!

Let’s first take a look at the barometer…

Plants Under Pressure

Apple added a barometric (atmospheric) pressure sensor to provide the iPhone 6 with relative altitude data to help the device more rapidly acquire a GPS lock by delivering altitude coordinates to the required latitude and longitude GPS equation (see here for example). The iPhone 6 barometer may also be useful for weather forecasting (see here, for example), with some caveats.

The iPhone 6 uses a Bosch BMP280 absolute barometric pressure sensor. This type of electronic pressure sensor uses a force collector (such a diaphragm or piston) to measure strain (or deflection) due to applied force (pressure) over an area. (Specifically, the iPhone 6 pressure sensor is a piezoresistive pressure sensor.)

How accurate is the iPhone barometer? “…absolute accuracy of +-1 hPa and relative accuracy for pressure changes of +-.1 hPa (normal sea level pressure is roughly 1013 hPa). To give you a better idea of the accuracy of this barometer, the average decrease in pressure with height near sea level is 1 hPa per 8 meters (26 ft).” (from Cliff Mass Weather Blog)

So, the iPhone 6 atmospheric pressure sensor is highly accurate and responds to pressure changes nearly instantaneously.

Do plants have environmental sensors comparable to the iPhone’s ability to sense changes in barometric pressure?

Despite the existence of the so-called “barometer bush” (Leucophyllum frutescens), I could find no credible evidence that plants have the ability to sense changes in barometric pressure.

The first places on plants I might look, however, are the stomatal guard cells. This is because they are known to be sensitive to, and respond to, changes in the relative humidity (which may be the “secret” behind the “barometer bush”.)

This is not to say that plants don’t respond to significant changes in barometric pressure. They do (see Ref. 2 below, and literature cited therein). Many of these responses are most likely related to changes in atmospheric CO2 and O2 partial pressures such as occur with plants growing at high altitudes versus sea level, for example. (This is somewhat analogous to how your body adapts to breathing in the mountains at high altitudes.)

Atmospheric pressure also may affect the rate of transpiration in plants as well as levels of the gaseous plant hormone ethylene (see Ref. 3 below, for example).

Bottom Line: It looks like the iPhone 6 wins this round because it has the ability to sense subtle changes in atmospheric pressure, and plants apparently do not possess such sensitive barometers.

Next-Time: The match continues with round two – Touch ID.


1. Trewavas, A. (2003) “Aspects of Plant Intelligence” Annals of Botany, Vol. 92, pp. 1-20. (Full Text)

2. Paul, A.-L., et al. (2004) “Hypobaric Biology: Arabidopsis Gene Expression at Low Atmospheric Pressure.” Plant Physiology, Vol. 134, pp. 215-223. (Full Text)

3. He, C., et al. (2003) “Effect of hypobaric conditions on ethylene evolution and growth of lettuce and wheat.” Journal of Plant Physiology, Vol. 160, pp. 1341–1350. (Abstract)

HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

Plants – Food Versus Fuel

A recently published report has pounded another nail in the biofuels coffin.

This report, published by the World Resources Institute provides evidence that governments have made a mistake by supporting the large-scale conversion of plants into fuel.

Turning plant matter into liquid fuel or electricity is so inefficient that the approach is unlikely ever to supply a substantial fraction of global energy demand, the report found. It added that continuing to pursue this strategy — which has already led to billions of dollars of investment — is likely to use up vast tracts of fertile land that could be devoted to helping feed the world’s growing population.” (from Ref. 1 below)

I’ve always been a skeptic of industrial-scale cultivation of plants for bioenergy (see here, for example.)

Please Note: This does NOT mean I’m against recycling used vegetable oil to make biodiesel, for example, or the conversion of waste biomass into ethanol.

But is spending tens of millions of dollars on biofuels-related plant research to facilitate the conversion of natural grasslands, and even croplands, to grow plants to be harvested and then be chemically converted into fuel for cars, jets and ships a misguided policy?

After reading this report you may indeed think so.

To read a summary of this report – or to download a free copy of the report itself (PDF) – please click on the link in Ref. 2 below.

News Update: The U.S. Is Pumping So Much Oil It’s Running Out of Places to Stash It.


1. Justin Gillis (January 28, 2015) “New Report Urges Western Governments to Reconsider Reliance on Biofuels”, New York Times.

2. Tim Searchinger and Ralph Heimlich (January 2015) “Avoiding Bioenergy Competition for Food Crops and Land”, World Resources Institute.

HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

Surprises: From Genes To Xmas Trees

The month of December 2014 featured some amazing discoveries in plant-related science.

From a new way to look at plant genomes and plant cells to “shape-shifting” plants to surprising info regarding organic farms and, yes, even Christmas trees.

Prepare to be (at least mildly) astonished.

  • A groundbreaking paper from a team of Florida State University biologists could lead to a better understanding of how plants could adapt to and survive environmental swings such as droughts or floods.
    See a surprising new way of looking at DNA at: Maize analysis yields whole new world of genetic science.
  • “…changing conditions can prompt immediate shifts in organisms’ physical traits — or what researchers call phenotypic plasticity, which allows for different looking organisms without changing their genetic code.
    Learn how this may help save some plants in the future at: Shape-shifting may help some species cope with climate change.
  • “…deep thinking on how the eukaryotic cell came to be is astonishingly scant. Now, however, a bold new idea of how the eukaryotic cell and, by extension, all complex life came to be is giving scientists an opportunity to re-examine some of biology’s key dogma.
    Read about this new way of thinking at: New theory suggests alternate path led to rise of the eukaryotic cell.
  • There’s is no way that organic farms can produce the same yields as conventional farms. Right?
    Surprise! Think again at: Can organic crops compete with industrial agriculture?
  • Each Christmas, families gather around evergreens, real or fake, to celebrate the season. But what holiday revellers may not realise is just how incredible these spruce, fir and pines can be.
    Discover some Xmas tree “secrets” at: Five things you didn’t know about Christmas trees.
  • And for your final “dessert” from 2014: Filamentous Fungal Freeways

    Hope you enjoyed this sampling of 2014 plant news “treats”.

    Thanks for visiting…and come again soon.

    HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

    From Plants In Space To Secret Worlds

    Is this penultimate sampling of the plant-related news from 2014 science or science fiction?

    Well, it’s definitely science.

    Why not take a taste and see for yourself.

  • The force of gravity has a profound effect on the growth and development of plants. But what happens when you remove gravity by growing plants on the International Space Station?
    Find out at: Plants return to Earth after growing in space.
  • Last November scientists at Cold Spring Harbor Labs…announced a new way to dramatically increase crop yields by improving upon Mother Nature’s offerings. A team led by Associate Professor Zachary Lippman, in collaboration with Israeli colleagues, has discovered a set of gene variations that can boost fruit production in the tomato plant by as much as 100%.
    See how they did it at: Getting more out of Nature: genetic toolkit finds new maximum for crop yields.
  • Using a new technique to study an old problem, an Agricultural Research Service scientist in North Carolina has uncovered new details about what happens to a cereal plant when it freezes.
    Get a clearer picture of this at: New Imaging Technique Leads to Better Understanding of Freezing in Plants.
  • Plants grow in environments where the availability of light fluctuates quickly and drastically, for example from the shade of clouds passing overhead or of leaves on overhanging trees blowing in the wind. Plants thus have to rapidly adjust photosynthesis to maximize energy capture while preventing excess energy from causing damage. So how do plants prevent these changes in light intensity from affecting their ability to harvest the energy they need to survive?
    Discover a possible answer to this question at: Switching on a dime: how plants function in shade and light.
  • Fungi live in darkness. Since they don’t do photosynthesis, they don’t require light. But they also live in a kind of “darkness” in another way. Because they are often hard to see, most people don’t notice them, except for maybe the mushrooms at the grocery store. In this way, they’re sort of “dark” (unknown) to most people, including many scientists. Recently, “…A light has been shone on the world of fungi through a global study that reveals the staggering and previously unknown diversity of species.
    Explore this new world at: The secret world of fungi revealed.
  • Next-Time: For our last taste of 2014…a few surprises.

    HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

    From Seaweed to “Orange” Corn

    The menu for our tenth course is probably the most varied so far.

    Will we be eating seaweed in the future? And maybe even orange corn?

    In between these two plant news items from October 2014, we also sample mushooms, tomatoes and hot chili peppers, and finally we get some dessert from Bill Gates (yes, THAT Bill Gates!).

  • Meet the farm of the future, where common seaweed is being upgraded from an environmental problem to a valuable natural resource and raw material.
    See what you may be eating in the future at: Food, fuel and more will be produced in sea farms of future.
  • Though modern medicine seems the epitome of all that severs our society from the past, it still draws on the same ancient processes of cognition that have always served to keep people alive — and that make us uniquely human.
    Read about how a physician found that identifying wild mushrooms is like diagnosing human diseases at: Learning From Fungi: Of Medicine and Mushrooms.
  • Plant breeders have long identified and cultivated disease-resistant varieties. A research team at the University of California, Riverside has now revealed a new molecular mechanism for resistance and susceptibility to a common fungus that causes wilt in susceptible tomato plants.
    Find out how researchers identified a new process that explains why tomatoes are susceptible to a disease-causing fungus at: To Wilt or Not to Wilt.
  • “…what did it mean that the hottest pepper on earth had a Scoville rating of more than 2 million? How do you quantify the spiciness of a chili pepper?
    How hot are the chili peppers you’re eating? Find out at: Rating Chili Peppers On A Scale Of 1 To Oh Dear God I’m On Fire.
  • Purdue researchers have identified a set of genes that can be used to naturally boost the provitamin A content of corn kernels, a finding that could help combat vitamin A deficiency in developing countries and macular degeneration in the elderly.
    Learn more about this at: Natural gene selection can produce orange corn rich in provitamin A for Africa, U.S..
  • And finally, for some dessert: The Love Life of Plants, courtesy of Bill Gates….

    Next-Time: From plants in space to the secret life of fungi.

    HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

    Menu #9: From Caffeine To An Asteroid (Plus “Dessert”)

    The plant news “smorgasbord” of September 2014 provided quite a variety “dishes”.

    It was difficult to choose only five, but I did manage to include a video “dessert”.

    Bon appétit!

  • Caffeine is the most widely consumed psychoactive substance in the world.” A recent study, published last September, “…sheds light on how plants evolved to make caffeine as a way to control the behavior of animals — and, indirectly, us.”
    Read this fascinating article at: How Caffeine Evolved to Help Plants Survive and Help People Wake Up.
  • A genetically engineered tobacco plant, developed with two genes from blue-green algae (cyanobacteria), holds promise for improving the yields of many food crops.
    See how at: Plant engineered for more efficient photosynthesis.
  • Almost everyone is familiar with the smell of a freshly-mowed lawn. “The smell of cut grass in recent years has been identified as the plant’s way of signaling distress, but new research says the aroma also summons beneficial insects to the rescue.
    You probably will never think of a mowed lawn in the same way after you read: Mown grass smell sends SOS for help in resisting insect attacks.
  • Leaf surfaces are wonderful microbial habitats (for example, please see here). Research published last fall “…demonstrates for the first time that host plants from different plant families and with different ecological strategies possess very different microbial communities on their leaves,…
    Learn more at: Research finds each tree species has a bacterial identity.
  • The giant asteroid that most believe resulted in the demise of the dinosaurs also must have affected terrestrial plant communities. Unlike the dinosaurs, plants are still here.
    Find out how plants survived this cataclysm at: A Plant’s Guide to Surviving the Chicxulub Impact.
  • Video Dessert: New plants will no longer have Latin descriptions

    On The Next Menu: Seaweed, mushrooms, tomatoes, chili peppers & orange corn…plus “dessert”.

    HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

    From Seed Saving To “Editing” Fruit

    Plant-related news did not take a vacation in August 2014.

    There were certainly plenty of stories to choose from for our eighth nibble at last year’s “leftovers”.

    So tuck in for some toothsome treats.

  • Most seed-preservation endeavors have followed pretty much a “one-size-fits-all” approach for collecting and saving seeds. “A new study, however, has found that more careful tailoring of seed collections to specific species and situations is critical to preserving plant diversity.
    Find out what’s new about saving seeds at: Saving Seeds the Right Way Can Save the World’s Plants.
  • How does a complete plant with stems, leafs and flowers develop from a tiny clump of seemingly identical cells?
    See how a research team combined math and genetics to discover a piece of the puzzle regarding: How plants grow and develop.
  • According to a paper published last August, planet Earth was a pretty boring place before flowering plants came along. Flowers may indeed have transformed land-based ecosystems.
    See how at: Flowering plants revolutionized life on Earth.
  • The mechanical force that a single fungal cell or bacterial colony exerts on a plant cell may seem vanishingly small, but it plays a heavy role in setting up some of the most fundamental symbiotic relationships in biology.
    Find out how “touchy” plants may be at: A touching story: The ancient conversation between plants, fungi and bacteria.
  • One of the main objections people have to GMO crop plants is that they contain foreign DNA from totally different organisms, even fungi and bacteria. But what if GMO crops are the result of relatively minor changes in the plant’s own genome? Will this change everything regarding the public acceptance of GMOs?
    Learn more at: Coming soon: Genetically edited fruit?
  • Next-Time: Caffeine and asteroids and their effects on plants…and more.

    HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

    From Plant Vibrations To Plant Detox

    Much of the plant news in July 2014 seemed to come in pairs.

    There were a pair of stories involving “vibrations”, a pair about plant development in 3D, and a pair about plants “cleaning” the environment.

    So, of course, the tasty news tidbits for the seventh month of 2014 will be served up in pairs.

  • News about vibrations in plants last July involved both the macro and molecular scales.

    First, at the macro level…Plant scientists have known for decades that plants respond to mechanical stimulations, such as wind, raindrops, etc. (see thigmomorphogenesis, for example). But can plants actually detect and respond to mechanical stimulations by insects?
    Apparently so. For example, see Plants respond to leaf vibrations caused by chewing insects.

    And for plant vibrations at the molecular level: “Biophysics researchers at the University of Michigan have used short pulses of light to peer into the mechanics of photosynthesis and illuminate the role that molecule vibrations play in the energy conversion process that powers life on our planet.
    Read how this work not only adds to our understanding of photosynthesis, but also may help improve solar panel design at: Deep within spinach leaves, vibrations enhance efficiency of photosynthesis.

  • Understanding how differential gene expression ultimately results in the formation of leaves, roots and flowers has long been the “Holy Grail” of plant development biology.

    The 3-dimensional (3D) imaging of developing plants has greatly contributed to achieving this quest. The results of two such studies were reported in July 2014:
    The first: Flower development in 3D: Timing is the key.
    And the second: Plants grown in a microscope reveal root development.

  • Despite the statement by Ronald Reagan that “Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do.”, I presume most of us would prefer to breathe the air in a forest rather than the car-exhaust-laden air along a busy city street. Indeed, new evidence supports the idea that trees may actually help remove air pollution.
    Read about it at: First national study finds trees saving lives, reducing respiratory problems.

    Using plants to mitigate environmental pollution is often referred to as phytoremediation. A good example of this was reported online last July at: Using sunflowers to clean up toxic soils.

    On Menu #8: Old seeds, “genetically-edited” fruit, and more….

    HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

  • Old Forests, New Synthetic Plants, & More…

    Like in May 2014, the news about plants reported in June was pretty wide-ranging.

    So, this sixth trip to the 2014 HowPlantsWork “buffet” yields quite a variety of plant news ‘morsels”.


  • How does an old forest evolve over time? “The traditional theory had posited that when a forest gets old, it would respire more and use more energy.” New findings, published last June, do not support this theory.
    Find out what’s new with old forests at: Study Revises Theory on Growth and Carbon Storage in Mature Trees.
  • …in the 21st century, we face both ever-increasing demand and the need to shift towards more sustainable production systems. Can we build new plants that make better materials, act as miniature ‘factories’ for food and fuel, and minimise the human impact on the environment?” To address these questions, a new initiative in the UK called OpenPlant, taking inspiration from engineering and the software industry, is under way that will fast-forward the design of new plants.
    Learn more about this experimental project at: From foundry to factory: building synthetic plants.
  • Can air pollution actually reduce the amount of insect pollination of flowering plants? According to a report in June 2014, the answer is yes.
    Find out more at: Odours can keep insects from finding flowers.

  • During the Great Famine in Ireland from 1845 to 1852 over 1 million people died and over a million people emigrated. The cause of this human disaster was a fungal pathogen on potatoes called Phytophthora infestans.
    See how scientists tracked down the origin of this disease and why this information is important in 2014 at: Irish potato famine pathogen originated in Mexico.
  • In 2006, the U.S. Senate created a National Pollinator Week to “recognize the importance of pollinators to ecosystem health and agriculture in the United States.” Each year since then, recognition of National Pollinator Week has grown, with many states and local groups planning educational events.
    Learn more about this (and get ready for 2015) at: Charismatic Minifauna: Pollinator week is coming!
  • Next-Time: From vibrating plants to how plants “clean” the environment.

    HowPlantsWork © 2008-2015 All Rights Reserved.

    Menu #5 = “Magic Mushrooms” To Heavy Metals

    The plant news topics from May 2014 were remarkably varied.

    Since the working definition of “plants” in this blog includes protists and fungi, scientific reports involving mushrooms are certainly fair game.

    So, let’s start this course with some “magic” mushrooms and finish with plants that may actually “eat” heavy metals.

  • When emotions are processed in a negatively biased manner in the brain, an individual is at risk to develop depression. Psilocybin, the bioactive component of the Mexican magic mushroom, seems to intervene positively in the emotion-processing mechanism.” See why these “magic” mushrooms perhaps should instead be called “happy” mushrooms at: Psilocybin inhibits the processing of negative emotions in the brain.
  • “…how much gene flow is there between plant populations? How important is gene flow for maintaining a species’ identity and diversity, and what are the implications of these processes for evolution, conservation of endangered species, invasiveness, or unintentional gene flow from domesticated crops to wild relatives?
    Find out answers to these questions at: What can plants reveal about gene flow? That it’s an important evolutionary force.
  • If you think the 1930s drought that caused The Dust Bowl was rough, new research looking at tree rings in the Rocky Mountains has news for you: Things can get much worse….
    Find out how much worse at: Tree rings reveal nightmare droughts in the West.
  • Tomato plants not only take heed of their neighbours chemical ‘warnings’ but actually convert the signals into substances to defend themselves against imminent insect attack….” Some scientists think that these substances may actually be used as effective insecticides.
    Read more about this at: Tomatoes’ cry for help turned into chemical weapon to battle insects.
  • Scientists in the Philippines have recently discovered a plant species that can accumulate large amounts of the heavy metal nickel.
    Find out how this plant may be useful in efforts to clean toxic soils at: New species of metal-eating plant discovered in the Philippines.
  • Next-Time: From a new look at old forests to a celebration of plant sex.

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