In the leafy green world of Alice and the Wonderland, it seems unspectacular to see plants and trees talk the way humans do. In the scientific world, can plants really talk and communicate with each other? It might sound like we've fallen down the rabbit hole.
Since researchers picked up on the topic of plant communication in the 1980s, labs experiment results have shown evidence that plants release volatiles when damaged by herbivores, and they do react secretly to each other to warn of attacks from insects, sending and receiving messages by generating electrical signals.
Based on the previous studies and assumptions, a group of European researchers are now developing a network of microsensors funded by an EU project called PLEASED (PLants Employed As SEnsing Devices), which has already raised 1.07 million Euros (1.46 million USD) in funding. The sensors monitor non-verbal communication patterns in plants. Amazingly, these artificial sensing devices can help researchers work out how a community of plants responds to changes in temperature, humidity, air pollution, chemicals and many other changes in their environment.
Breaking away from prior studies that only focused on the sensing capabilities of individual plants in a controlled laboratory environment, the PLEASED project plans to consider real field scenarios (e.g. a forest or a meadow) in which plants often receive uncontrollable and unpredictable stimuli. This is considered the coolest part of the whole project, as well as datasets that will be made available to the public for applications in various areas including environmental monitoring, precision agriculture, and certification of organic farming, according to the project website.
In July 2014, the research team also organised workshops to dissemnate and exchange experiences on the digital acquisition of signals generated by plants.
I do hope this project will generate new insights of what, how, when and why plants perform these sensing tasks to give us a whole new view on ‘how plants secretly talk to each other’.