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Amazing, Amusing, & Surprizing

A couple of weeks ago I was perusing the online edition of Wired magazine and spotted the following headline: “The Internet of Vegetables: How Cyborg Plants Can Monitor Our World”.

With a title like this, how could I not click on the headline and read the article? (Please see link #1 in the Online Resources below). What I read left me slightly amazed, mildly amused, and totally surprised.

I was slightly amazed because of the nature of the proposed research project described in this article. I was mildly amused because this project is somewhat reminiscent of investigations that took place over 40 years ago. And I was totally surprised because I had just read an obituary about Grover Cleveland “Cleve” Backster, Jr., who died last year (6/24/2013) at the age of 89.

Allow me to explain….

Do You Remember The Plant Polygraph Man?

Have you heard about the experiments during the 1970s in which plants were connected to “lie detectors” (a.k.a., polygraphs)? The polygraphs were used to attempt to measure changes in electrical activity within the plants, especially in response to various stimuli. This was the guy.

From: NY Times (see Online Resources #2 below)

Cleve Backster performing one of his experiments – From: The New York Times (see Online Resources #2 below)

Cleve Backster “…was an interrogation specialist for the Central Investigation Agency (CIA), best known for his experiments with plants using a polygraph instrument in the 1960s which led to his theory of “primary perception” where he claimed that plants “feel pain” and have extrasensory perception (ESP), which was widely reported in the media but was rejected by the scientific community.” (from Wikipedia)

Backster was a proponent of “primary perception” for over 40 years. He became famous, (or infamous, depending on your point of view) chiefly thanks to the book The Secret Life of Plants. Ah, but we’ve been down this road before…here, here, and here… so, I won’t travel it again in this post. (By the way, an excellent, albeit skeptical, review of Backster’s work can be found here.)

Many people tried to reproduce Cleve Backster’s experiments, most without success, including TV’s Mythbusters.

But what does Cleve Backster’s plant polygraph experiments have to do with connecting plants to the internet?

The reason I was surprised and amused when reading the Wired article soon after reading Backster’s obituary was that, coincidentally, both have to do with electrical activity in plants.

PLants Employed As SEnsing Devices (PLEASED)

It’s been known for long time that it’s possible to detect electrical signals in plants, often in response to external stimuli. (Please see Ref. 1 below, for example.) But the physiological significance of such electrical signals has often been questioned.

The article in Wired magazine online described a current research project aimed at using computers to precisely characterize electrical signals in the plants, especially with regard to specific environmental stimuli. Moreover, if and when these electrical signals are so categorized, these investigators speculate that the plants can then be developed as a whole-organism sensing device, and even be inter-connected via the internet. (Please see Online Resources #3 below for link to their website.)

Perhaps a brief YouTube video, courtesy of this research group, may serve as a good introduction:

The major difference between these researchers and Cleve Backster is that the PLEASED project doesn’t involve the paranormal, namely, “primary perception”. This doesn’t mean, however, that this project isn’t fairly far out on the fringes of plant science and of feasibility.

For example, it seems like it would be a major challenge not only to assign a specific electrical signal to a specific plant bioresponse, but also to tease out a signal from amongst all the electrical “noise” inherent in a complex multicellular plant. And it seems totally impractical to use living plants – subject to the vagaries of wind and weather and disease and insects and light and darkness – as reliable biosensors.

Despite all this, my hat’s off to them and their collaborators for acquiring funding for this high-risk project. I wish them luck.

In closing, I should mention that this is certainly not the first time that it’s been suggested that plants be used as environmental biosensors. (Please see Ref. 2 below, for example.) More on plant biosensors to come….

Online Resources:

1. The Internet of Vegetables an article in Wired magazine online (1/30/2013)

2. A remembrance of Cleve Baxter in the New York Times (12/21/2013)

3. PLants Employed As SEnsing Devices website

References

1. Fromm, J. and S. Lautner (2007) “Electrical signals and their physiological significance in plants” Plant, Cell and Environment, Vol. 30, pp. 249-257. (PDF)

2. Volkov, A. G. and D. R. A. Ranatunga (2006) “Plants as environmental biosensors.” Plant Signaling & Behavior, Vol. 1, pp. 105-115. (Full Text)

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