The life of plants with Jagadish Bose

Recently, I’ve been reading a lot more into various scientists prominent in the field of plant science, and one that has captured my attention is Jagadish Chandra Bose (1858-1937). Known for being a polymath, an expert in various branches of science, he was passionate about physics, biophysics, biology and archaeology research. Not to mention plants.

Bose was born in what is now Bangladesh, and received degrees from both the University of Calcutta, and University of Cambridge. In his some of his earliest research, Bose invented a piece of equipment that could generate electromagnetic radiation and subsequently detect and receive 5 millimetre long microwaves. However, at the turn of the 20th Century in 1901, he decided to turn his attention to plants and their movements and electrical signalling.

He designed experiments to test plants’ sensitivity to various stimuli, such as light, heat, wounding, chemicals, and noise. In order to test his hypothesis that plants can ‘feel pain, understand affection’, he designed an instrument that could both observe and record the plants’ responses to these external stimuli. Simply put, the crescograph measures growth of plants. Bose wanted to use it to calculate the growth rate of plants when exposed to heat, light, or chemicals.

crescograph bose

A crescograph at the Bose Institute in Kolkata, India.

In 1901, on the 10th May, Bose took his research and crescograph to the Royal Society in London, to demonstrate his findings. One experiment using the crescograph detailed a plant delicately attached to the ends of wires, the opposite ends being attached to finely tuned clockwork. The plant was subjected to a poisonous solution of bromide, either through its roots or leaves. As the plant absorbed the bromide, this ingenious piece of machinery documented the plant’s response by detecting a series of minute vibrations or movements and recording them onto a smoked glass screen. These measurements were taken at really short time intervals, from less than 1 second to 2 seconds. Within minutes, the vibrations increased violently, and then quickly stopped. There was no further response from the plant; its exposure to the poisonous chemical resulted in its death. Bose actually compared it to a rat dying from poisoning.

From his many experiments, Bose began to notice that plants used a form of electrical signalling between their cells in order to respond to external stimuli. He then tried to prove that these electrical pulses or signals were responsible for the minute movements or vibrations that plants made. Bose also used electrical probes attached to different parts of the plant to measure electrical currents moving through the plants as a result of a response to a stimulus, i.e. a wound.This helped to further cement his idea that plants were responsive and attentive to the world around them.

Although his contributions to engineering and physics were applauded and respected, in his plant physiology research, Bose was deemed quite controversial. The famous playwright George Bernard Shaw once visited one of his demonstrations and was said to be horrified at a cabbage ‘convulsing’ in boiling water.

Nowadays more scientists are gaining interest in Jagadish Bose’s work with plants and the crescograph. The crescograph has actually been modified, and research is now conducted around the world, looking into the hows and whys of plant communication and response mechanisms. Why is this important? Our environment is changing. If we can understand how plants both respond to their surroundings and communicate with each other, then maybe we can anticipate future environmental and biological changes.

What more are plants not telling us?