Do you know what the biggest living creature in the world is? You may immediately think about the blue whale…. Wrong answer, it is a plant: the "Sequoiadendron giganteum" weighting 2000 tons, 80 m high and with an amazing life expectancy going beyond 3000 years. Same when you think about smart creatures in nature, one would immediately think about the animal kingdom. Clearly the plant kingdom remains largely under estimated in our collective perception of the world. While there is a long tradition in technology development of getting inspired by humans and animals (for instance in robotics), the plant kingdom has been relatively ignored so far. Also, while animals have a central nervous system controlled by a brain that can explain their 'intelligence', plants do not have any such system which makes their 'intelligent' behaviour even more fascinating.
Thanks to Darwin but also to recent progress in plant biology, we learn every day that plants have even more impressive capabilities than we were expecting. Not only their diversity is the outcome of remarkable evolutionary adaptation to their environments but they have also developed sophisticated sensing and communication capabilities. While we all know, by simply observing them, that plants can sense gravity and light (gravitropism and heliotropism), it was recently discovered that plant roots are also sensitive to sound and do adapt their growing behaviour accordingly (phonotropysm). They can also very efficiently detect chemical pollutants like ozone or acid or other forms of threats, such as the proximity of a flame.
But beyond their sometimes unique sensing capabilities, plants are also able to adapt and develop an optimal global response to the changing environmental condition. For instance the root apparatus behave like a swarm. It can re-orient itself to avoid proximity of pollutants, it can develop new roots when necessary ,for instance to find more water or limit its development as a reaction to a certain sound. Plants can also communicate, not only internally within their sophisticated organism but also with other plants using various transmission mechanisms like insects, birds or chemicals. Instances of plant to plant communication have been documented, in which chemicals emitted by a damaged plant can be picked up by neighbouring plants who can prepare themselves to face the upcoming threat.
Exploring the capabilities of plants and mimicking their behaviour is certainly a field of research still largely unexplored that holds the promises of unexpected technological breakthrough. FET projects like SWARM-ORGAN, PLANTOID and PLEASED use plant biology in different ways for future technology research: the first one for swarm-robotics inspired by cellular level morphogenesis in plant roots, the second one by mimicking roots developments in a plant-like artefact called a 'plantoid' and the last one by using plants as sensors for pollutants.
These are good first steps, but there is so much more that we can get here!
PS: I very much enjoy the TED talk of Prof. Stefano Mancuso on "The roots of plant intelligence". Prof. Stefano Mancuso is leading the plant biology work in the FET PLANTOID and PLEASED projects. He has also been interviewed for this video on PLEASED, covered by Euronews in their Futuris category.
- Article on PLEASED project, available also in DE, ES, IT, PL, FR on CORDIS website