Plants Employed As Sensing Devices

21-01-2014 2-08-44 PM


Plants have amazing and significant sensing capabilities.

For instance, each single root apex can simultaneously and continuously monitor many chemical and physical parameters. Natural organisms, including human beings, have often inspired works of science and science fiction on how to augment their abilities or interface them with machines. As a remarkable example, electroencephalography (EEG) enables the transduction of electrical activity in the brain into machine understandable signals of non-verbalised patterns.

In this project, we plan to extend this approach to the realm of plants, shifting focus from interfacing a single entity (e.g. a human brain that controls a prosthetic device) to a network of entities (a community of plants) that renders an orchestrated response to the environment in which it lives. While artificial sensing devices exist that can monitor environmental parameters of interest, such as temperature or humidity, the focus of our research will be on the use of plants themselves as sensing and decision-making devices.
The holistic approach we propose is novel: while plants as bio-sensors have been the object of previous studies, prior work has focused on the study of the sensing capabilities of individual plants in a controlled laboratory environment.

In contrast, we plan to consider real field scenarios (e.g. a forest or a meadow) in which plants often receive uncontrollable and unpredictable stimuli. We will consider the case of multiple points of observations, in which readings from several plants are collected over a wireless network and integrated in a suitable way to obtain a consistent and global view of an environment of interest. Eco-compatible, self-sustainable and cost effective plant-based solutions will be studied to tackle two relevant problems of the modern society: air pollution and the use of chemicals in organic agriculture.

We are used to thinking of plants as inanimate objects. A nice aphorism well describes our vision: “One day you will step into the garden to look at the flowers – and the flowers will look back at you”. Even more interestingly, we also claim that plants will gossip about you!

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Forging a Hot Link to the Farmer Who Grows the Food

Wal-Mart Hermosillo
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America [Canada and soon everyone else 🙂 ] meet your farmer.

The maker of Stone-Buhr flour, a popular brand in the western United States, is encouraging its customers to reconnect with their lost agrarian past, from the comfort of their computer screens. Its Find the Farmer Web site and special labels on the packages let buyers learn about and even contact the farmers who produced the wheat that went into their bag of flour.

The underlying idea, broadly called traceability, is in fashion in many food circles these days. Makers of bananas, chocolates and other foods are also using the Internet to create relationships between consumers and farmers, mimicking the once-close ties that were broken long ago by industrialized food manufacturing.

Traceability can be good for more than just soothing the culinary consciences of foodies. Congress is also studying the possibility of some kind of traceability measure as a way to minimize the impact of food scares like the recent peanut salmonella crisis.

The theory: if food producers know they’re being watched, they’ll be more careful. The Stone-Buhr flour company, a 100-year-old brand based in San Francisco, is giving the buy-local food movement its latest upgrade. Beginning this month, customers who buy its all-purpose whole wheat flour in some Wal-Mart, Safeway and other grocery chains can go to findthefarmer .com, enter the lot code printed on the side of the bag, and visit with the company’s farmers and even ask them questions.

“The person who puts that scone in their mouth can now say, ‘Oh my God, there’s a real person behind this,’ ” said Read Smith, 61, who runs Cherry Creek Ranch, a 10,000-acre farm and cattle ranch in Eastern Washington. “They are going to bite into that bread or pastry and know whose hands were on the product.”

The FindtheFarmer site is the brainchild of Josh Dorf, 39, a disaffected entrepreneur who got into the food business six years ago by buying the Stone-Buhr brand from Unilever, the multinational consumer brands company.

Mr. Dorf gathers wheat from 32 farmers in the Pacific Northwest whose methods have been certified by an environmental organization. That wheat is kept segregated from uncertified farmers’ wheat while it is milled at a Spokane, Wash., factory, even though a single flour sack could contain wheat from as many as four farmers.

“Is it gimmicky? Sure, but it has value. Consumers have an interest in dealing directly with and supporting the American farmer,” said Mr. Dorf, who said he was inspired to create the site by “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” a book about the damaging effects of a hyperindustrialized food system.

The author of that best seller, Michael Pollan, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, said FindtheFarmer was one part of a bigger effort to reintroduce trust into the food system.

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