Future

Implants: In-Plants?

Bionics, smart apps and vertical farms are reshaping the way we relate to plants

Tech and nature – to many, these buzzwords are contradictory. Technology estranges us from nature, they say. And yet a host of recent innovations show that it can also have the opposite effect. By Valerie Kittlitz

Imagine you’re walking down a tree-lined street. Or better even, through a forest. How many plant varieties would you be able to name? Five? Ten? Fifteen? If you score more than that, cheers to you: most people struggle naming the most common trees. The other day, a friend stopped in front of a strange-looking potted plant on the sidewalk. He pulled out his phone, opened an app called Plantsnap, took a picture, uploaded it, and bam!, there was the plant’s name. He laughed: ‘It’s like Shazzam for botany.’

In a backyard in Berlin sits startup PEAT, which has made use of a similar technological approach – object recognition with trained AI – to develop Plantix, an app which allows users to identify plant damages. The group of friends behind PEAT (an acronym for Progressive Environmental Agriculture Technologies) created the app to support small and medium-sized farmers across the world. They want to counter a dire fact: 30% of crops are lost annually to diseases, as PEAT’s Pierre Munzel reports over a cup of coffee. He frowns: ‘Farmers are challenged by extreme changes in climate. Plants today are exposed to unprecedented conditions: extreme wind, rain or drought.’ In addition, global agriculture responds to rapidly altering market demands; crops are swiftly planted in regions where farmers are often not entirely familiar with their needs. The app recognizes up to 400 diseases and advises farmers on how to treat them. As Pierre says, ‘Plantix is an interpreter of sorts. We turn crops into readable organisms. Understanding them makes it possible to engage with them.’

In light of such advancements, Pierre does not regard nature and technology as contradictory: ‘I know that a lot of people think, “Back to nature, because the world is speeding up”. With everything becoming digital, many feel we’re living a Terminator reality of sorts. I understand that – but we won’t be going back to the plough. The internet and data also offer us chances. We ask more questions and are more informed. We’re all undergoing this huge learning curve.”

Peat's app Plantix works through big data analysis and deep learning technology. Image credit: Peat Berlin

A positive outlook. But not all technological inventions are as simple or consumer-friendly when it comes to engaging with plants and bridging knowledge gaps. Buckle up, because it’s going to get weird and we’re jumping fast forward into an unknown future. Across the pond, Michael Strano is developing technology that is two steps ahead in its ambitions. He wants to turn plants into lightbulbs – and more.

Strano, a Carbon P. Dubbs Professor of Chemical Engineering, and his team at the MIT have developed what he calls ‘bionic plants’: modified specimens, but neither genetically so, nor via breeding. These plants have been enhanced through the application of nanotechnology.
The scientists pressurized a solution of nanoparticles – one particle being no larger than a protein – through the stomata Tiny pores on a leaf’s surface, through which the plant evaporates or absorbs moisture

into the leaf’s cell structure. The solution contained a combination of fluorescent enzymes, the same group of enzymes which give fireflies their glow. The energy stored inside the plant caused the particles to emit light – a case of bioluminescence. The result: a glowing plant.

A few weeks ago in May, the Cooper Hewitt opened its doors to exhibit them in the frame of the 2019 Design Triennial. Visitors were invited to upload snapshots of the futuristic models on display onto Instagram. The result are images which depict a strange scenario of larger-than-life plants, casting humans in an almost psychedelic glow that adds an entirely new connotation to the word ‘evergreen’.

To Strano, this is just the start. In one of its experiments, his team infused plants with nanoparticles which enhanced their capacities to do photosynthesis. An intriguing idea, given that we depend on plants’ photosynthesis to decrease CO2 in the atmosphere.
But he wants to take things further: if plants can glow because of their internal electrical and chemical signaling systems, they might be able to acquire different functions altogether – this is Strano’s line of thought. ‘Plants harvest and store their own energy; they have a moving water supply. And they’re made of carbon dioxide,’ he says. ‘They are also already adapted to the outdoors. And they’re low-cost. Instead of using plastic and circuit boards, things that go to landfill, we can create a more sustainable world.’ Plant-turned-powerplant.

A mind-boggling vision. Admittedly, a large part of Strano’s research uses nanotechnology to understand how plants function. But the strand in which his team enhance plants is of a different character. And it isn’t brand-new: in essence, it can be likened to that of a paper published in 2015 in Science Advances, the authors of which demonstrated that a plant can function as an alternative circuit board. Given the chemical signaling that takes place in a plant, it’s not too difficult to see it as a living internet of sorts. It’s harder to imagine how Strano wants to take these ideas further. Plant-lit streets. Replacing plastic circuit boards with plants: a plant-powered microwave? A plant-operated printer? Typing this article up on a plant..? Most likely an Apple tree.

A rose is a rose is a rose. Or a circuit board. llustrations showing basic plant physiology and analogy to electronics (left) and electronically conducting xylem wires (right). Source: https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/1/10/e1501136

Bad puns aside: Strano’s experiments raise a question – is it ok to change plants so drastically? The engineer may insist that he is only interested in methods that keep plants alive, and that his team don’t modify them genetically. But altering their function to a point where the results sound like a plant-cyborg of sorts – doesn’t that sound … disrespectful, perhaps? Challenge to Strano. ‘I want to protect myself from sounding like a pseudo-scientist,’ he responds. ‘There’s been a long-standing controversy surrounding plants. It centers around whether they have a psychology, an intelligence, in the way a dolphin has, for example. This is controversial because a plant doesn’t have a central nervous system – so can it have emotions? In science, when something is not sure, the answer is NO.’ He gives a last recommendation: ‘ I suggest to treat this like an open question.’

If in doubt, live without? – Here’s a simple comparison, brought up by Strano himself: ‘Once the nanoparticles are inside the plant’s cells – it’s like a drug injected inside the veins of a human.’
Enhancement or toxification? Hybris – or simply progress? To us humans, the plough that Pierre referred to above, is a piece of technology as much as the first sharpened stone was. And so the question is where to draw the line. Equally blurred are the boundaries between food, nutrition and drugs (medicinally speaking). We’ve long cultivated plants and other species; ultimately, to enhance ourselves and the world surrounding us so as to live a longer, ‘happier’ life. However, history has shown that we tend to develop technological tools before we know how to use them, as sociologist Richard Sennett reminds us. And so, it is up to us to consider the ethical questions arising with each new invention.

Back in Berlin, yet another of them offers new ways to relate to plants. On a spring morning, the sun sends its first golden rays across the neo-Renaissance facade of Martin-Gropius-Bau. Timeless as ever, the sight reveals nothing of the unconventional novelties hidden inside the museum – and we’re not talking contemporary art. Beyond the courtyard lies Beba, the museum’s newly opened restaurant, and inside of it, an entire wall is lined with a set of illuminated, two-meter high, translucent cases. Their shelves are home to plants. Living plants.

It’s a curious sight. The cases look and sound like huge fridges but are nothing of the sort. They are vertical farms, climatized zones from which salads and herbs are harvested – and served within hours. And this has a definite effect. ‘The plants have a flavor profile you don’t get to experience with ones that have sat in a plastic bag on a shelf for three days,’ says Beba’s founder Shani Leiderman, who grew up in Tel Aviv and came to Berlin in 2012. Two years later, she started working at startup Infarm – the producer of these vertical farms – and another four years later, she decided to turn her passion for food, which runs in the family, into a profession. Born was Beba.

Get cracking: Shani Leiderman harvests fresh herbs. Crisp, crunchy and packed with tastiness indeed

Vertical farms are not a complete novelty – implemented in a range of supermarkets across Europe, Asia and the US, you may have already come across one. Entirely sealed, their hydroponic systems allow for growth without pesticides or herbicides. The plants are hence organic, rich in nutrients, and don’t require packaging. The UN estimates the world population to increase by more than one billion people within the next 15 years, and the issue of food waste is an unnerving reality. With vertical farms, transport time is reduced, and so are chances for unnecessary decay.

Admittedly, a power-sucking indoor farm may at first glance strike us as an energy-intensive, luxurious marketing gimmick that caters to the taste-buds of spoilt city dwellers. But if we’re to believe Infarm, the carbon footprint of indoor-farmed vegetables is lower than that of farm-grown ones. ‘A big, energy-intensive part of the supply chain is cut out, the part which is usually invisible to the customer,’ says Leiderman. The side effect? ‘With these farms, everything is visible. And that makes it perhaps uncomfortable, because people now see the energy that is used.’ She walks over to a case, opens it, and takes out a bunch of herbs.

We gotta face it: our environment is changing, and it is up to us to determine how. Imagine a future in which the veggie shelf of your supermarket is a transparent vertical farm. If it were to Strano, it might be powered by plants. You harvest a head of lettuce, you check out, take it home, place it in the sink. Its roots are intact, still moist, they need to be removed. It reminds you of a natural reality – of the origin of life. With or without plant shazzam, there’s something to listen in on.
‘I used to think of plants as something static,’ says Shani Leiderman. ‘Now I see them as living creatures – who just have a different pace to us. They take more time. I do feel that they talk to us, but they talk slower. You have to take a moment, listen, and tune in with what they need.’