Manufacture Circuits Using Plants!

It’s true! Magnus Berggren, an organic electronics researcher at Linköping University in Sweden, has recently been featured in the press regarding the work that he & his collaborators have been able to accomplish – turning plants into living circuit manufacturing centers.

Electronic crop growth using embedded grown circuits
                                         Embedding electronics in plant to improve growth (Source: Livescience)

Tia Ghose’s article gives a high-level overview of the discovery. This certainly is quite amazing!

Bio-Grown Circuitry: Good & Bad Implications

What are the implications of this discovery?  As mentioned in the article, it means that plants could possibly be grown in such a way that they could act not only as sensors on their own, but entire sensor networks over an entire field or more.

At the same time, with the potential of having embedded circuitry within the plants, it may be possible to have a fine level of control over how plants could be stimulated.  Right now, even though the research is a little over 200 years old, we know that plants’ regulatory mechanisms could be tweaked through the use of various forms of technology – electric fields, magnetic fields, etc.  It works, but the research into how to optimized plant growth using these methods is in its infancy, relatively speaking.  Having a fine degree of control not only into the stimulation side, but also the sensor side will give us an unprecedented level of control over how plants grow – allowing us to optimize growth in a myriad of ways.

Yet there are some negatives as well.  If plants could be coerced into growing circuitry, what are the implications of this.  There are many – ranging from the circuits getting not only into the human-consumable elements of the plant, e.g. the fruits, but also other consumable elements depending upon the end-use.  Leaves could be eaten, brewed as tea, or used in tinctures.  Same with the other parts of the plant.  And what about the animal kingdom – from deer to rabbits to insects… what would be the effects of animals consuming these ‘circuits’.  Perhaps as technology evolves, where the circuitry is grown from naturally-occurring elements like chlorophyll – it will not be a problem; but in the meantime, when potentially toxic chemicals are used, the technology should be kept in the lab and not deployed at-scale.

Opening up to a new way of communicating with plants

How could we possibly interface with these plants – while hooking up a number of micro-electrodes to a given leaf could be one way of interfacing, it may be better to design (if that’s even a possibility) the induced circuitry to form some form of antenna network.  Perhaps then, plants could be programmed through some form of RF energy, through light-based signaling, or possibly through electrical signals transmitted through the ground.

Until the future arrives, what can we do for now?

While the possibilities of this futuristic technology are amazing, its practical use is probably many years off into the future.  So what can we do for now?

It turns out that there are many ways that we can accomplish a similar level of control, sensor fidelity.  On the sensor side, electrodes and new sensing methods could be clipped onto plant leaves, or placed within the soil biome to take measurements.  With low-cost real-time computing, sensor data could be relayed back to a base-station for addition analysis and action as well.  This is possible now, and sensor networks are available that make this sort of thing trivial to implement.

On the stimulation side, using electric fields & other technologies, we can do nearly the same things, not only on the scale of a single plant, but an entire field as well.  And the benefit of doing this today is that it can be done safely, easily, and with little relative cost.

If you could embed circuits into your plants, what would you want it to enable you to do more easily?  Let us know in the comments below.


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