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New invention enables humans to 'talk' to plants using light

Researchers have ushered in a new era in plant science by creating a technology that brings the once-fictitious idea of human-plant communication to reality. This recently developed technology enables humans to ‘talk’ to plants and receive communication back from them, using light-based messaging. This incredible breakthrough was achieved by a team of scientists from the Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University (SLCU)

Initiating plant defense mechanisms

The experiments conducted by Alexander Jones’ research team at the university involved using light as a messenger to talk to plants. The light activates the natural defense mechanisms in tobacco plants (Nicotiana benthamiana), showcasing that light can be a stimulus triggering plants’ immune responses.

This implies that light, a universal medium of communication for humans, can now serve as a bridge for interspecies interaction between humans and plants.

Highlighter: Created to talk to plants

Before this discovery, the University of Cambridge team engineered fluorescent light-based biosensors that could visually communicate real-time cellular activities in plants, revealing dynamics of critical plant hormones and how plants react to environmental stresses, effectively allowing plants to ‘talk’ to humans.

The latest development, Highlighter, is a tool documented in PLOS Biology that uses specific light conditions to activate the expression of a target gene in plants, allowing humans to trigger defense mechanisms in plants.

Dr. Jones explains, “If we could warn plants of an impending disease outbreak or pest attack, plants could then activate their natural defense mechanisms to prevent widespread damage.”

Addressing agricultural challenges

This innovation holds promise for revolutionizing agricultural practices and humanity’s relationship with plants. It could allow warning plants about approaching extreme weather events or pest attacks, enabling them to adjust growth patterns, conserve water, or activate defense mechanisms.

This advanced communication with plants can lead to more sustainable and efficient farming practices, reducing dependency on chemicals.

Science of optogenetics

Bo Larsen, the engineer behind Highlighter, has incorporated a light-controlled gene expression system or optogenetics system from a prokaryotic system into a eukaryotic system tailored for plants.

Optogenetics uses light stimuli to control specific processes, enabling scientists to control biomolecular processes at a cellular level. It has revolutionized several fields, including neuroscience, by isolating the functions of individual neurons.

However, applying optogenetics to plants has been challenging due to plants’ inherent abundance of photoreceptors and their need for a wide spectrum of light for growth.

Development of Highlighter

In the creation of Highlighter, collaboration with experts like J. Clark Lagarias from UC Davis and others from the National Physical Laboratory was crucial to overcome challenges and to refine the technology. The system developed is minimally invasive, using light signals for activation and inactivation, unaffected by the usual light-dark cycling in growth chambers.

This technology has already demonstrated control over plant immunity, pigment production, and a yellow fluorescent protein. Dr. Jones emphasized that “Highlighter is an important step forward in the development of optogenetics tools in plants,” and it opens new avenues for crop improvement and research in plant biology.

Talking to plants — what the future holds

The ramifications of this development are profound. A growing toolbox for plants, with diverse optical properties, not only answers fundamental plant biology questions but also unlocks potential opportunities for crop improvement.

Dr. Jones visualizes a future where different light conditions could trigger various responses, such as immune response or precise timing of specific traits like flowering or ripening, in plants.

The innovations emerging from the Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University are propelling us into a future where humans and plants coexist in a symbiotic relationship of mutual communication and understanding, optimizing agricultural practices and revealing unexplored facets of plant biology.

This breakthrough in human-plant communication signifies a monumental leap in our quest for harmonious coexistence with the plant kingdom, pointing towards a future where sustainable and efficient farming becomes a global reality.

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