In a jolt to rose lovers and plant enthusiasts worldwide, scientists have created the first ‘cyborg’ rose. And it’s amazing– a living flower powered entirely by electronics. This marks the first time a plant’s biological circuitry has been successfully merged with an electrical circuit, opening the door to a future where plants may be improved by electronics instead of by genetic engineering.
The futuristic research, undertaken by a team of scientists at Sweden’s Linköping University, paves the way for the development of new tools and technologies based on the joining of electronics and plants. Think e-Plant. In the future, scientists will be able to translate a plant’s own chemical processes into printable electronics via feedback-regulated control of their roots, stems and leaves.
When announcing the results of the study, Ove Nilsson, professor of plant reproduction biology at the Umea Plant Science Center and co-author of the article in Science Advances said,
“Previously, we had no good tools for measuring the concentration of various molecules in living plants. Now we’ll be able to influence the concentration of the various substances in the plant that regulate growth and development.”
How it works
Like all plants, roses are complex organisms that rely on the transport of ionic signals and hormones to spur growth and development. A plant’s vascular tissue, called xylem, acts as the plant’s plumbing. Xylem allows water to travel from the roots up through the stem, where it is then distributed across the leaves.
Hormones, nutrients and other molecules travel through this transport system, too; however, plant hormones are produced in very small amounts, making them extremely difficult to observe and study.
In an effort to better understand how hormones shape plants, scientists selected a garden-variety rose as their test subject and began experimenting with infusing different conductive polymers (organic, chain-like substances) into its xylem. They hypothesized that, if successfully integrated into the plant’s vascular tissue, the materials might form wires that could transmit an electronic picture of the inner workings of the plant.
Many of the substances the scientists initially tried, however, turned out to be toxic to the rose, either clogging up the opening to its stem or refusing to integrate themselves within the plant’s xylem channels.
Eventually though, scientists found a material that worked. The material, known as PEDOT-S, is a well-known conductive polymer used in traditional electronics.
PEDOT-S turned out to be water soluble (an important feature, so as not to interfere with movement of water and nutrients throughout the plant.) Scientists submerged the cut end of the rose stem into a solution of the polymer and over the course of a few days the rose’s xylem soaked it up and began transporting it throughout the plant.
As it wove its way into the rose, the polymer came out of solution, forming a thin film along the plant’s xylem channels. The researchers then succeeded in inducing the rose to produce slender, 10-centimeter segments, or ‘wires’ to which they attached electrodes, creating a fully functional ‘electrochemical’ transistor.
As the transistor converted the plant’s ionic signals to electronic outputs, it formed ‘pixel’s of the electrochemical cells as they operated within the plant. The world’s first cyborg rose was born.
In a separate experiment, the scientists applied voltage to the wires and were also able to induce subtle color changes in the rose’s leaves.
According to Professor Magnus Berggren, head of the University’s Laboratory of Organic Electronics who led the research,
“Now we can really start talking about ‘power plants’ – we can place sensors in plants and use the energy formed in the chlorophyll, produce green antennas or produce new materials. Everything occurs naturally, and we use the plants’ own very advanced, unique systems.”
Why create an electronic rose?
Aside from the cool factor, the creation of the cyborg rose has broad implications for the study of plant physiology; in particular, when it comes to growth. Being able to accurately record the various substances that regulate a plant’s growth and development could potentially provide scientists with a valuable tool for influencing these same factors. And, by augmenting a plant’s natural function with electro active materials, scientists may eventually be able to nudge its development in more sustainable directions.
The potential uses for this type of living technology are huge, including the development of new applications for photosynthesis-based fuel cells (solar fuels) and other devices that in the future may sense and record changing hormone levels in plants. The cutting-edge technology could likewise prove useful for the paper industry, giving them greater control over the growth and development of trees as they prepare them for harvest.
Perhaps most importantly, this new kind of biological circuitry could prod a plant’s physiological properties in desired directions, providing a natural alternative to genetic modification.
For more information on this ground-breaking study, go to the Linköping University website.