Your garden is going to get a lot smarter.
Researchers at the Laboratory for Organic Electronics at Linköping University in Sweden have created cyborg roses by inserting tiny electronics into the plants' vascular systems. Why would anyone want to corrupt one of nature's most beautiful flowers? The scientists believe their research, outlined in a recent paper in Science Advances, could allow us to better understand and even control how plants grow, producing more resilient plants without relying so much on chemicals or genetic modification. All of this has large implications for agriculture.
Here's how it works: The researchers gave the roses a synthetic polymer, which the flowers absorbed in the same way they would suck up water. Once inside, the polymer formed wires that can conduct electricity without interrupting the flow of water and essential nutrients. This lets the researchers tap into the electricity that runs through the rose and create circuits.
Electronically conducting xylem wires. | (Courtesy of American Association for the Advancement of Science)
"The experiment opens the door for electronics that can plug into plants," writes New Scientist. "The team used the xylem wires to make a transistor — a basic building block of computing and electronics. They tacked gold electrodes and probes along the length of the plant, then connected it to an external resistor and ran a current through it."
Today, our go-to method for controlling how a plant grows and thrives is exposing it to chemicals or altering it genetically. There could be a better way, but as the paper points out, researchers still have a lot of unanswered questions about plant biology, which makes it hard to come up with new, more efficient, and perhaps safer methods. Electronic plants could be filled with sensors and keep track of their own internal workings, relaying the information back to researchers. Perhaps someday a farmer could flip a switch that tells his crops not to bloom before an incoming frost.
"Changing some traits, such as flowering time, may be too disruptive to an ecosystem if done permanently, especially if those changes could propagate through forests and fields," writes Tia Ghose at Livescience. But the researchers say electronic commands could be reversed to prevent that from happening.
There are a lot of hurdles, of course, and this technology has a long way to go before proving practical. For example, if these circuits were to be used in edible plants, researchers would have to prove they don't harm the final product, and guarantee they wouldn't unexpectedly appear on anyone's dinner plate. Also, as Rachel Feltman at the Washington Post points out, these experiments were done on plants that had already been cut, "so it's not clear how long the bionic flowers would be able to bloom with their electronic components in tow."