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How Plants sense their ambient

Animals are not the only life form that can sense the world. Recent discoveries have pointed out that plants can -sort of- see, smell, taste, touch and even hear. So watch out to what you say when there is a plant around … Image credit: NewScientist

As I am preparing a course on Digital Transformation I am searching the web for advances in sensing technologies and, of course, there is always quite a bit to learn from Nature.

I bumped onto an article reporting the latest discovery on how plants sense the world. I guess we have always known that plants can sense the light, some seek the shade, others grow searching the sunlight. Sunflowers are a clear example, moving their flower to track the Sun. So in a way, they are able to see where the light comes from.

Similarly we have noticed that a plant grow roots in specific direction searching for water, it tastes the soil, and we know of plants that are able to catch flies as they land on their leaves, proving they have a sense of touch.

Scientists have been able to discover that plants may also smell, recognise relatives and even hear sound.

In the article published on Science Daily a team of researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham report on the discovery of the physiological processes involved in plants sensing.

The team has identified the role of some 200 proteins used by plants to sense their environment.

The organization of nodes and edges in a graph represents network structure. Vertices and links represent nodes and edges, respectively. Two nodes can be connected by undirected or directed edges. (B) A sub-network of plant–pathogen interactions is demonstrated. Hubs (highly connected proteins), bottlenecks (high betweenness nodes), and pathogen effectors (virulence factors) are depicted in red, yellow, and brown colors, respectively. Network with scale-free topology might be vulnerable to pathogen-mediated perturbations. Credit: Cassandra Garbutt et al, University of Alabama, Birmingham

They have shown how the membrane of a plant cell can detect and respond to the presence of microbe and activate a response.

This new understanding on how plants sense is important since it may open the way to create more resistant crops. It is an area where we can expect significant progress in the next decades, as precision agriculture and digital farming will take the stage.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.