New DIY Kit from Backyard Brains Tests Plant Behavior, Communication

Back in the 1970s, a nonfiction book called “The Secret Life of Plants” took the world by storm. Both my mother and grandmother owned a copy, and being a child with a voracious appetite for books, I took a peek inside.

The book described the emotional and spiritual inner life of plants and recommended ways people could “communicate” with them to make them grow better. It was pretty heavy on the woo, but to a family that took its houseplants fairly seriously, it made for fascinating reading.

According to Greg Gage, neuroscientist and co-founder of Backyard Brains, an Ann Arbor, MI-based edtech company aiming to create a nation of DIY citizen scientists by selling fun tools and experiments to get them started, “The Secret Life of Plants” was also a load of pseudoscience.

The last time we covered Backyard Brains, in 2015, we talked about its Robo Roach kits, which allowed young scientists to transform an unassuming cockroach into a remote-controlled cyborg. Just in time for the holiday season, the company has a new electrophysiology project for sale called the Plant Spiker Box that enables humans to effect interspecies plant-to-plant communication between Venus flytraps  and Mimosa plants.

Since “The Secret Life of Plants” was first published in 1973, the scientific community has warmed up to the idea that plants might possess a kind of networked intelligence that humans are only just beginning to understand. In 2013, Michael Pollan wrote an article for the New Yorker that highlighted some of the new findings regarding what the author called plant neurobiology.

“There’s still a heavy amount of skepticism in the field, and scientists using the term neurobiology [in reference to plants] probably doesn’t help,” Gage says. “Mostly, it’s European scientists that are more OK with it.”

What is true about plant behavior is that it’s a lot more complicated than scientists perhaps first imagined. In 2016, a researcher named Monica Gagliano published a paper in the journal Nature on associative learning in pea pods. In it, she described experiments that utilized external cues to “train” pea pods to grow in specific conditions based on their recollection of where light was found in the past, demonstrating that associative learning is an essential component of plant behavior.

After the paper was published, Gage and the Backyard Brains team sought to replicate some of her studies using simplified tools. “We were 100 percent able to re-create it,” he says. The results informed the development of the new Plant Spiker Box, which allows experimenters to discover how Venus flytraps detect and capture prey, how the sensitive Mimosa plant reacts in real time to touch, and how triggering one plant through external stimuli can control the behavior of another plant. (To see exactly how the experiment works, check out Gage’s TED talk from earlier this year.)

Because the field of plant behavior is wide open, Gage says it’s perfect for DIY science experiments. “The mechanism isn’t well understood, but we can provide the tools so people can investigate on a deep level,” he adds.

Since the Charles Darwin era in the mid-1800s, we’ve known that plants communicate through electrochemical messages. Scientists first made this discovery while observing the Venus flytrap in the wild. One of the last carnivorous plants discovered, the Venus flytrap was native only to a small area in North Carolina, Gage says, which made it an evolutionary anomaly.

“They noticed that when a bug landed on it, the leaves would spring shut,” he explains, but the plant wouldn’t act the same way if, for example, a piece of debris or other non-prey material landed on the leaves. Today, scientists know the leaves close after tiny hairs inside the plant’s leaves are triggered more than once, causing an electric spike similar to what happens in human brains in response to certain stimuli.

“The plant is encoding information, and doing it electrically because it has to be fast,” Gage says.

The voltage from the spike instantly floods the flytrap’s leaves after the first trigger, and if it gets another, similar trigger, the plant has to calculate whether or not a tasty morsel has landed in its jaws. “All of that calculation is very similar to how the human brain fires,” Gage says. “We can understand the electrophysiology of humans through plants.”

Gage says it’s fascinating to see how electricity functions in plants and he compares it to the way it operates in human nervous systems. The Mimosa plant, for example, is highly reactive to touch. Poke the plant and within seconds, the leaves bend inward and almost shrivel up. “I think it’s a way to look less appealing” to herbivores, he says. Because of the unique, demonstrative way Venus flytraps and Mimosas react to stimuli, they worked well for the Plant Spiker Box experiments.

Backyard Brains successfully applied for a $2.2 million grant from the National Institutes of Health two years ago, and the company has used part of the funding to build a full semester-long neuroscience curriculum for high school students. The company hired a former head of the National Association of Biology Teachers to take the lead in developing the curriculum, and this fall, the company began distributing experiment kits to schools to go along with its lesson plans. Backyard Brains has worked with a number of entities, including Cass Tech High School in Detroit, the Michigan Science Center, and Purdue University, to develop lessons, train teachers, and get the kits into schools.

“We found that when the teachers had the kits, they were much more confident with the material—the hands-on approach is important,” Gage says.

The next big topic Backyard Brains is examining for potential home experiment kits is neurorobotics, Gage says, where a motor is essentially controlled by thoughts. The company has applied for federal funding to further explore this avenue, but he says the company will develop neurorobotics experiments even if it doesn’t score another grant. Last year, Backyard Brains hit a milestone by funding roughly 80 percent of its research and development activities through the sale of products like the Plant Spiker Box, which sells for $149.99 on the company’s website. Backyard Brains is also accepting orders from schools.

Even though he fears the Trump administration will dismantle the Obama-era White House Brain Initiative, Gage says there’s never been a better time to be a neuroscientist, thanks to new technological developments like gene editing. There’s also never been a greater need for skeptical citizen scientists, he maintains.

“In a post-fact world, it takes organizations like ours to teach skepticism and critical thinking, because those are skills we generally don’t teach in school,” Gage says. “Science is about the discovery of new knowledge by testing and weighing incomplete information.”

Despite the national groundwork being laid for a next-generation K-12 science curriculum that gets away from rote memorization, Gage says not enough schools are adopting the lesson plans. In his own young employees, he sees how skepticism is almost gone in the way they too easily repeat things they hear somewhere as fact. It’s hard to build on past scientific findings if they’re wrong or haven’t been thoroughly challenged, he points out.

“That’s how conspiracy theories take hold,” he says. “We’ve lost the ability to reason and look critically at arguments. With pseudoscience, you’re never trying to disprove, only prove. We’re hoping with our kits, like the Plant Spiker Box, students will enjoy taking controversial ideas and testing them.”

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