Think plants are dumb?

What is intelligence? Intelligence can be defined as the ability to perceive changes in one’s environment, to apply knowledge to manipulate their environment to suit oneself, and to think abstractly. If I were to ask if you thought plants were intelligent, most likely your response would be “most certainly not, they’re not animals”, or something along those lines. And in one sense you would be right, they are not animals. Gotcha. But…it is of course much easier for scientists to prove that animals can be intelligent, because they have obvious structures that we associate with intelligence, such as a brain, and a nervous system.  However, when considering plants, the criteria for intelligence are less clear.  So this raises two questions – are plants intelligent, and if not intelligence, what has allowed plants to adapt, survive and flourish in their various environments.

The question of plant intelligence raises the issue of whether plants are capable of feeling and adapting to their environment and manipulating it, which has led to the idea of plant neurobiology. This concept of plant neurobiology allows us to understand how plants perceive their environment and how they respond to those stimuli. This could give us ideas for the future on how to develop better ways to grow crops. One particular person who is well-known for his views and work on the concept of plant neurobiology and plant intelligence is Professor Anthony Trewavas. He proposed that plants must be intelligent, because of their ability to perceive their environment and manipulate it. He described plant intelligence as the interactions between the plant tissues of an individual plant, which appear to give evidence for a nervous system.

In recent years, there has been an increasing amount of evidence to suggest that plants do possess a type of nervous system. One example demonstrating this is Arabadopsis thaliana, model plant species in plant biology and genetics. Scientists have performed experiments that showed the reaction of the whole plant (under fluorescence imaging) to light being shone onto a single leaf of the plant. They noticed that the plant responded to the light by carrying out light-induced chemical reactions (photosynthesis continued in the dark). These findings suggested that the leaf sent electro-chemical signals to other leaves, causing them to start photosynthesising too, which can be compared to the nervous system in animals. Another experiment subjected Sterllaria seeds to dark or light conditions for more than a year, and the seeds showed some memory of the conditions they had experienced. Some argue that plants do have a brain and it could be located in the meristem near to where the signal has been given. Evidence for this can be found in the local meristem itself, where decisions are made – whether a plant will move its roots towards the nutrients or water, or whether it will moves its leaves towards the sun.

Plants have the ability to perceive changes of abiotic or biotic factors within an environment; therefore, they react in a certain way to counteract that change. Plants, like carnivorous plants, are capable of perceiving changes in their environment, through the use of sensory organs, which allow them to respond to environmental stimuli, such as light, gravity, and water. The plant’s response to a stimulus is called a tropism. Behaviour of carnivorous plants supports plant intelligence further.  Dionaea muscipula (Venus flytrap) has modified leaves which trap insects for the plant to digest. Inside the leaves, 6 tiny hairs act as triggers, and when they are touched, this triggers the trap to close, due to deformation of hair sensory cells. It is argued that D. muscipula must have some form of nervous system in order for this reaction to occur.

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Venus flytrap (Photo credit)

 

Plants also have the ability to manipulate their environment. One way that they do this, is through changing soil pH. For example, in some areas where the soil is very low in nutrients, (particularly iron, which is necessary for plants to grow healthily), some plants excrete protons into the soil, which causes the pH of the soil to decrease. This increases the solubility of the iron molecules so the plants are able to take up the iron from the soil more easily.

However, you could easily argue that plants do not possess intelligence. The most obvious argument is that plants do not have a brain, so they cannot think or reason. Yes, plants are capable of detecting changes within their environment, but they simply respond to these changes naturally without making a conscious decision. Their responses are innate, built into their molecular structure. For example, if a plant is placed near a window, the leaves will turn to face the sun (positive phototropism). The plant shoots move towards the light, due to the secretion of the plant hormone auxin. The light causes auxins to be secreted at the dark side of the plant, causing the elongation of the plant cells on the dark side of the plant. This is simply a hormonal response, as the plant is simply reacting to the light stimulus. The theory of evolution will say that this shows that the plant has ‘learnt’ through the process of evolution that it needs to move to the light to survive. Tropisms allow plants to maximise their chances of survival. Plants with more favourable responses to stimuli can pass on their genes to future generations, thereby increasing the survival of their species. In place of a nervous system, plants use chemicals to convey messages. For example, the sagebrush secretes chemical signals, which warn surrounding sagebrush plants that there are pests nearby. This triggers the surrounding plants to produce leaves that are more resilient to pest attack. The ‘decision’ for the plant to produce these chemical signals is made at the cellular level of the plant. What’s more important, the plant would still produce the signal without other sagebrush plants around. This suggests that plants are pre-programmed to react this way, and that they are not aware of their surroundings.

Another argument against plant intelligence is plants’ lack of a true nervous system. Some plants do have sensory hairs, like Mimosa pudica, which has tiny hair-like projections on its leaves. Once these hairs are touched, this triggers the leaves to close up, acting as a defense mechanism. This is as a result of rapid long-distance signalling . The plant appears dead, so it is preventing its predator from eating it. This increases its chances of survival and maintaining genetic diversity.

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Mimosa pudica (Photo credit)

If a systematic approach is used, you could say that plants can’t be classified as intelligent. Although they do have systems which allow them to conduct chemical signals across from one part of the plant to another, they do not have a proper nervous system with a brain. As a result, they cannot think, or reason. Plants show that they are unable to choose where their seeds land and germinate – it is random. However, just because plants may not be considered intelligent in the way humans are, does not mean that they are not productive – they still need to regulate their metabolic and developmental processes in order to maintain function. However, this regulation does not mean that a plant has thought about any of the processes it is involved in. Plants have a built-in ability to adapt to changes in their environment. Some plants have shown to be resilient against drought, extreme soil salt concentration, flooding, and fire. Their ability to survive maximises their chances for successful reproduction, therefore allowing their genes to be passed onto future generations.

The scientific community (and perhaps my readers) remain divided as to whether plants can be considered intelligent, and this is likely to remain the case. However, the concepts of plant intelligence and neurobiology could raise awareness of what plants are capable of, when placed into challenging situations; and this can allow us to find ways of utilising plants’ amazing features which make them the most successful species on the planet.

So the verdict is…I’ll leave that to you to decide.

#plantsgotskills

Extra reading:
Chakrabarti, B. K. and Dutta, O. (2002) An electrical network model of plant intelligence. Indian Journal of Physiology
Firn, R. (2004) Plant Intelligence: an Alternative Point of View. Annals of Botany 93
Gill, V. (2010) Plants ‘can think and remember’ BBC. 14 July 2010. 12 February 2012 <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10598926>
Hodick, D. and Sievers, A. (1988) The action potential of Dionaea muscipula Ellis. Planta 174
Struik, P. C.; Yin, X. and Meinke, H. (2008) Persepctive Plant Neurobiology and Green Plant Intelligence: science, metaphors and nonsense. Journal of the Sciences of Food and Agriculture 88
Taiz, L. And Zeiger, E. (2010) Plant Physiology 5th Edition Online. Sinauer Association, U.S.A. 12 February 2012 <http://5e.plantphys.net/article.php?ch=3&id=289
Trewavas, A. (2004) Aspects of Plant Intelligence: an Answer to Firn. Annals of Botany 93
Trewavas, A (2005) Green plants as intelligent organisms. Trends Plant Sci 10
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Soil science. A man’s world?

This piece was written by Franciska de Vries, owner of Frantecologist. I think this is a very enlightening and well-written piece, one that really highlights the gender problem we have in science. I am a fellow soil/plant scientist (PhD student), and it concerns me that in the next few years it could be hard for me to pursue an academic career or even gain momentum to get to the top of my field (be that academia or industry). We cannot let this problem just be swept under the rug; we need to keep talking about it, and making a big deal out of it.

Read on, soldier on, and let’s fight for science equality.

Frantecologist

I am a female soil scientist (a soil ecologist, more specifically). And while traditionally the field of soil science has been dominated by men, I’d like to think that women are catching up. Certainly in the labs where I have worked in the last 10 years, women have dominated the postdoc and PhD positions, although this trend yet has to reach the more senior, permanent academic posts. (Unfortunately, there are many reasons why it might not.)

And I couldn’t help but notice that in a recent NERC strategic call for soil science grants (within the larger Soil Security and SARISA programmes), all eight grants that were awarded had male principal investigators. (And that is on top of the fact that all other projects in these two programmes, which were funded about two years ago, are also led by men.)

And because of this traditional male domination of soil…

View original post 1,496 more words

New Year Musings

Hello everyone!

I have been a bit lapse in writing regularly on this blog, and now is the time to start making amends.

A bit of an update for you: I have moved into my third year of my PhD (where did the time go..?), and now I only have 2 years left until I submit! Well actually 1 year, 8 months, and 19 days, but who needs that much specificity in their life… Anyway, I have spent the last (almost) 2 years living in Australia, and working at the University of Adelaide, but in 2 and half months I will be moving back to my birthland – the UK to undertake the last year and a half of my PhD at the University of Nottingham. Because I am a joint PhD student, I spend roughly equal amounts of time at two universities, and as a result, I get a jointly awarded PhD at the end of it. Plus a tonne of international experience. Win-win.

So now it’s dawning on me that I need to turn on the engines after a relaxed Christmas break, knuckle down and do the work. But before I do that, I want to share how I’d like to develop this blog over the next year. When I first started, this blog was a platform to share cool, new and exciting things that are going on in the research world. And I’d still like to carry on with that. Now in addition to that, I want to share more stories about women in Science, and particularly about the roles they play in Soil and Plant Science (fields close to my heart). I also want to talk more about the types of jobs available for a PhD student, like me, like you, like whoever. People say the only options for a scientist (who wants to stay in science) are academia or industry. But I say, let’s prove them wrong.

So cheers to a new year and cheers to more blogging! And to top off my musings, here is a picture of me chilling on holiday, with no thoughts of science swirling through my head.

#onwardsandupwards

 

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Diving in Gili Trawangan (O.Cousins)

 

 

Feature image: farmers planting rice on Christmas Day (O.Cousins)

 

Communication – the art of science

I’m back! It’s been an interesting few months, but work is ever so slowly ticking away, but it’s now nearly Christmas so I can start winding down.

Last month, I decided to test my video-making skills and make a 3-minute video detailing my PhD research. I submitted it to my school as part of our Research Day video competition. The synopsis is that wheat is an important source of food, but climate change is impacting rainfall, which in turn affects the solubility of nitrogen and efficiency of its uptake. Both water and nitrogen are important for healthy plant growth, so the goal is to find a way in which we can maximise yields despite the unpredictability of rainfall and lower nitrogen application rates.

Unfortunately, it didn’t win, but I learnt a lot in the whole process. Like don’t leave it until the last week to make it. Or stay up late. You will end up making mistakes and having to re-do it… Oh the joys.

That aside, definitely keen to continue making videos alongside my blog! If you have any ideas, give me a shout. I love hearing from fellow scientists and also the non-scientists among you.

I’ll leave you with some inspirational quotes:

We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing must be attained. ~ Marie Curie

Science and everyday life cannot and should not be separated. ~ Rosalind Franklin

Science and art belong to the whole world, and before them vanish the barriers of nationality. ~ Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Enjoy! 🙂

 

Community-driven change

With the increasing pace of modern-day agriculture, often the health of the environment and consumers’ well-being is overlooked. This is evident across the globe, with many farmers opting for high-intensity farming to maximize crop and meat yields to meet consumer demands.

However, some groups of people are working towards more sustainable agriculture, through development of community-based projects and indigenous-based technology. By adopting indigenous knowledge, technology can be adapted to harness local resources better. The outcome of these projects look a little different, depending on whether it is for a developed or developing country. I want to share two case studies from the UK and Indonesia, both of which use the local community to develop and build technology that are environmentally-friendly, sustainable and educational. As someone who is both Indonesian and British, I have seen a few of these examples first-hand, engaged in conversations with project leaders and played a minor role in setting up similar projects.

A UK-based case study which has helped to demonstrate community-based agriculture is Riverford Organic Farmers Ltd. In the late 1980s, Guy Watson turned to organic farming and started distributing his locally-grown produce to family and friends via a weekly vegetable box scheme. Quickly, the network of box-scheme deliveries expanded, now with more than 47,000 boxes delivered a week to customers around the country. The focus of this scheme is to grow varieties for their flavor rather than their appearance, avoiding the use of pesticides, instead adopting integrated pest management. The boxes’ contents range from root vegetables to soft vegetables and salads, to fruit and meats. In order to deliver high quantities of boxes across the country, Riverford has formed a mutual co-operation of British farmers who are committed to organic, sustainable farming, and together they produce, pack and supply the boxes. They pride themselves in the quick turnaround of supply, with food taking no more than 2 days from harvesting to delivery.

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Guy Watson with one of the various Riverford veg boxes.

Another case study, this time from Indonesia, involves Rus Alit from the Bali Appropriate Technology Institute (BATI). I have personally met him and stayed with him. Born and raised in Bali, Indonesia, he noticed the difficulties elderly people in his village faced collecting water. Villagers were unable to access the nearby spring, meaning they had to hike long distances and rough terrain to access clean water. Although the village spring was inaccessible, the rate at which it pumped water – 38 drums every 24 hours – was perfect for a technology boost. Rus designed a prototype of a hydraulic ram pump, which enables water to be powered from a source that is lower than the desired outsource. Village leaders were skeptical about the technology, but once they saw the prototype in action, it was enough to encourage them to adopt the system and build it, along with Rus’ guidance. The villagers now had a pump that delivered water from the once-inaccessible spring into a holding tank in the village. Soon enough each house had piping which delivered clean water. Not only was the pump easy and cheap to install, it also instilled a desire in Rus to develop more sustainable, cheap and simple technology for communities around Indonesia that would otherwise struggle to get hold of this technology. As a result, BATI was born. Rus spends time developing technology alongside rural indigenous communities, working with their resources and knowledge. The mandate is that once a community has learned how to use a particular technology, they teach and help nearby communities. Twice a year, BATI runs week-long courses for eager learners from across Asia. They come away with new knowledge of building water pumps, roads and bridges, learning sustainable agriculture, irrigation and animal husbandry. These skills, no longer taught in our modern society, have helped shape the future of many rural and indigenous communities not only in Indonesia, but across Asia. All because of one man and BATI.

The development of community and indigenous-based technology for sustainable development has helped to create a more resilient society, a society that knows how to use their environment to their advantage, ensuring they always have enough food and water. However, there is a difference between the technology and projects showcased here. With countries like Indonesia, there is a greater focus on developing technology and agriculture systems that are not only sustainable, but will increase community health, either through increased yields of staple crops from smallholdings or the provision of clean water. The technology needs to be appropriate for the local indigenous community, utilizing local resources and requiring no or little outside energy sources, reducing environmental footprint. With countries like the UK, communities lean towards developing a more organic way of farming, with preferences for produce taste rather than appearance. The price of food is no longer the main driver for growing food; if foods are produced in an organic or sustainable way, consumers will pay.

The factor that binds these countries together is the desire to make agriculture more sustainable, for the sake of the environment and well-being of consumers. There is an urgent need to peel back the principles of farming (terrestrial or aquaculture) to highlight sustainable farming practices which are accessible to all communities whether they are developed or developing. Inventors can be made anywhere; it is essential that the next generation is taught the importance of the environment and sustainable agriculture, and the skills to develop appropriate technology to meet the requirements of each community. Only then can communities shift towards creating a self-preserving society.

Now I just have to play my part.

#community

 

Feature image: rice fields in the early morning in a small village in Bali, Indonesia (O.Cousins).

Community, technology, sustainability

Three important words. Community. Technology. Sustainability. In this day and age it is absolutely crucial that our scientific advances become more sustainable if we are to maintain and grow our agriculture communities and develop better technology for feeding and taking care of the world.

 

Last week I attended the AC21 International Graduate School 2017 at Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM) in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. Around 45 students attended the week-long summer school, with Indonesia, South Africa, Australia, Americas, Europe, Thailand, Japan and China represented. The title of the summer school was ‘Community and indigenous-based technology for sustainable development towards resilient society’. This topic was given to us in a variety of different ways, through lectures, workshops, community service, internship and excursions. It was highlighted that universities need to become a bridge between the work they do (whether it is science or humanities) and the surrounding communities. By doing this, it creates an awareness in the students towards problems faced by their surrounding communities. In turn it can create a healthy relationship between university and community and aid in developing research-based community service.

The two lectures that stuck with me the most were presented by lecturers from UGM. Dr. Murtiningrum not only highlighted the importance of soil in agriculture, but how water plays a role in soil physics and behaviour. She got us to think about how the area of arable soil available in Indonesia affects how the people farm. She got us into groups of 7, and told us stand on a piece of newspaper; at first, only one person was allowed on the newspaper, then 3, then all 7 group members. She made us think strategically in how to maximise space yet still fit all of our group on that newspaper sheet. This is how the Indonesian farmers must think, they must be strategic in their farming practices, otherwise they cannot maximise crop yields or economic yield.

Prof. Irfan Dwidya Prijambada gave a very energetic seminar on community empowerment for sustainable technology transfer. He is a key helper in developing community service projects between communities and undergraduate students from UGM. He talked about projects he has helped to set up through UGM. Community service is compulsory for final year students. These students spend a few months usually in a local village getting to know the community. Whilst there, they share their knowledge to help set up a project that will benefit the community; in return they learn a lot more from their village hosts – interpersonal skills, life skills, communication skills, cultural skills. I saw firsthand some of the work Prof. Prijambada has done with local communities and villages to create sustainable farming practices and economic ventures. We visited a local cacao plantation, where they grow and graft their own cacao trees, harvest the pods and process them. Once processed, they get turned into delectable chocolate!

 

In addition to seminars, we visited UGM’s own agriculture school, and had a tour around the facilities. It has everything from livestock, to tropical fruit and veg crops, to biogas production to composting factory. It was encouraging to see how passionate the people were about the environment and recycling.

 

 

We also participated in making traditional herbal medicine. Jamu is traditional Indonesian medicine, made from different herbs and spices to treat an assortment of illnesses or to improve vitality. We visited Merapi Farma Herbal where they turned jamu-making into a successful business. With the help of some of the workers, we made crystallised ginger. It was really tasty and did not taste like medicine at all!

 

The week-long program reiterated how fast our world is changing, and how important it is to for communities to be able to keep up with these changes. Visiting the different communities showed me that people can be very resilient and adaptable to changing climates, both environmental, and socio-economical. This resilience is key to developing technologies that will improve community sustainability; in turn, the sustainable development of a community will improve its resilience.

It was fascinating to meet so many people from so many different countries and cultures, many of whom came from totally different backgrounds to me. This program gave me the opportunity to mingle and interact with people across disciplines. And I can’t stress how important that is. Sometimes we get so tied down and stressed by focusing on one small aspect of the global picture, that we forget what our bigger picture is. Occasionally we need to come up for air, we need to get out of our bubble or comfort zone once in awhile and venture into the world of ‘that’s-not-my-field’. Who knows what knowledge we can gain by talking to people from another discipline. Who knows what collaborations are possible. You just have to get out there.

AC21 IGS 2017, it’s been a pleasure.

#globechangers

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Community ❤

 

Feature image: 2017 AC21 grad students. All images unless otherwise stated taken by O.Cousins. 

The Hanging Gardens of the World

Smog is something that impacts many cities around the world, especially those that are heavily built-up. Major cities in central and northern China, like Beijing, welcomed in the New Year with orange and red alerts for smog. Red alerts are the highest on the air pollution scale, usually resulting in schools and factories to close. And China’s air pollution is not a new problem, but is steadily getting worse.

Solutions? Build vertical gardens. This is not a new concept, but it is brilliantly shown by Singapore’s exquisite Gardens by the Bay. The 18 Supertrees, concrete towers encased in a steel frame, are covered with over 162,900 tropical plants originating from all over the world. These plants were chosen based on 7 different criteria, including tolerance to vertical planting, lack of soil, hardiness, and easy maintenance. Not only are these plant-clad structures highly visually-stimulating, but they also connect to some of the cooled conservatories resulting in air being recycled between conservatory and Supertree.

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Singapore’s Supertrees in the Gardens by the Bay (O.Cousins)

With Singapore aiming to cut its carbon emissions by 10% by 2020, it is hoped that the construction of these monolithic trees will raise more public awareness of the environment and how our actions can affect it.

Hanging gardens have been trialed all around the world, but covering an entire skyscraper or residential building block in lush green plants is not that easy. But that hasn’t stopped Stefano Boeri and his big leafy dreams. An architect from Milan, he owns Boeri Studio, and is already part of several projects that are taking the importance of biodiversity, climate change, urban design, and European culture into architectural design. The threat of climate change is no longer a threat, it is happening. Vertical ForestING is a concept Stefano started in 2014 when Boeri Studio designed, constructed and completed the first vertical forest in Milan.

Trees have been planted on each level, as many as can fit in one hectare of forest. The idea was to improve residential living, but ensure that urban planning did not come at a cost to the environment. By building up, it helps to eliminate urban sprawl. By adding hundreds of plants from flowering plants to small trees, not only is it creating something artistically beautiful, but it also adds biological diversity in a heavily populated urban area. The trees and shrubs provide shade, attract small wildlife, and help contribute to cleaner air.

Now, Stefano has set his sights on building more vertical cities, this time in Nanjing, China. The project aims to replicate Bosco Verticale, with 2 residential towers covered from head to toe in trees, shrubbery and hanging plants. But it also becomes part of a bigger project: Forest City. The concept of the vertical forests has been up-scaled, with a whole city designed with multiple skyscrapers covered in hanging gardens and surrounded by parks. Shijiazhuang will be the site of a new kind of city, housing 100,000 people comprising of 225 hectares. Instead of a city sprawling outwards, this city will sprawl upwards, leaving more land for natural preservation and agriculture. Due to the sheer number of trees and shrubs on one building, one square metre is anticipated to absorb 0.4 kg of CO2 a year. The green facade also helps to maintain cooler temperatures within the buildings.

The concept of vertical gardens is certainly not new, but over the last few years it has developed further. The idea of architecture being sustainable and using renewable energy sources is exciting. Constructing more vertical forests could certainly play a part in combating heavy smog and pollution in cities, and hopefully help to mitigate climate change.

I mean who wouldn’t want to wake up to green every day?

#cityjungle

 

 

Top feature image credit: Stefano Boeri Architetti