Green Living — October 18, 2010
Neurobiology and the roots of plant intelligence
Stefano Marcuso is the professor of horticulture at the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology (LINV) in Florence, Italy. He runs the only lab in the world dedicated solely to showing that plants are, in fact, intelligent entities. To christen his research lab in 2004, Mancuso decided to use the controversial term ‘plant neurobiology’ to reinforce the idea that plants have biochemistry, cell biology and electrophysiology similar to the human nervous system. Plant neurobiology explores signaling and communication at all levels of biological organization, from genetics to molecules, cells and ecological communities.
Does the Boston fern you’re dutifully misting each morning appreciate your care? Or can the spreading oak in your local park take umbrage at the kids climbing its knotted branches? Not likely, says Mancuso, but that doesn’t mean that these same living organisms aren’t capable of incredibly sophisticated and dynamic forms of awareness and communication.
From his laboratory near Florence, Mancuso and his team explore how plants communicate, or “signal,” with each other, using a complex internal analysis system to find nutrients, spread their species and even defend themselves against predators. Their research continues to transform our view of plants from simple organisms to complex ecological structures and communities that can gather, process and — most incredibly — share important information.
Two fields in which Mancuso and others see their research playing a more prominent role moving forward are robotics and telecommunications. One project at the LINV is looking at ways of using plant-inspired robots – nicknamed “plantoids” – to explore other planets. The idea would be to drop mechanical “pods” on the Martian surface, for example, which would be able to communicate with a “stem” linked up to a data center on Earth.
So far the lab’s nine researchers have published studies on topics as disparate as gravity sensing, the effects of music on vineyards and plant synapses. “Biometrics can provide some of the most inspiring resources for us. Solutions found by nature that might not seem related to real engineering problems at first sight actually are related and give technical solutions,” said Leopold Summerer, advanced-concepts team coordinator at the European Space Agency, commenting on the research’s potential future directions.
This book discusses the most important aspects of plant communication, including the plant immune system, abilities of plants to recognize self, signal transduction, receptors, plant neurotransmitters and plant neurophysiology. Research shows plants are able to recognize the identity of herbivores and organize the defense responses accordingly. The similarities in animal and plant neuronal/immune systems are discussed as well. All of these hidden aspects of plant life and behavior help to understand the communicative plants in their whole complexity.