Smarty Plants: Inside the World's Only Plant-Intelligence Lab
SESTO FIORENTINO, Italy -Professor Stefano Mancuso knows it isn't easy being green: He runs the world's only laboratory dedicated to plant intelligence.
At the International Laboratory of Plant Neurobiology, about seven miles outside Florence, Italy, Mancuso and his team of nine work to debunk the myth that plants are low-life. Research at the modern building combines physiology, ecology and molecular biology.
"If you define intelligence as the capacity to solve problems, plants have a lot to teach us", says Mancuso, dressed in harmonizing shades of his favorite color: green. "Not only are they 'smart' in how they grow, adapt and thrive, they do it without neurones. Intelligence isn't only about having a brain".
Plants have never been given their due in the order of things; they've usually been dismissed as mere vegetables. But there's a growing body of research showing that plants have a lot to contribute in fields as disparate as robotics and telecommunications. For instance, current projects at the LINV include a plant-inspired robot in development for the European Space Agency. The "plantoid" might be used to explore the Martian soil by dropping mechanical "pods" capable of communicating with a central "stem", which would send data back to Earth.
The idea that plants are more than hanging decor at the dentist's office is not new. Charles Darwin published The Power of Movement in Plants -on phototropism and vine behavior- in 1880, but the concept of plant intelligence has been slow to creep into the general consciousness.
At the root of the problem: assuming that plants have, or should have, human-like feelings in order to be considered intelligent life forms, Mancuso says.
After the folksy 1970s hit book and stop-motion film The Secret Life of Plants, which maintained, sans serious research, that greenery had feelings and emotions, the scientific community has avoided talking about smarty plants.
So while there has been a bumper crop of studies demonstrating that green matter can be nearly as sophisticated as gray matter -especially when it comes to signaling and response systems, few talk about intelligence.
To christen the lab in 2004, Mancuso decided to use the controversial term "plant neurobiology" to reinforce the idea that plants have biochemistry, cell biology and electrophysiology similar to the human nervous system. But although LINV is part of the University of Florence -where Mancuso teaches horticulture- funds for this fertile field of research weren't forthcoming.
Studies at LINV were eventually given lymph -1 million euro so far, with about 500,000 euro to come- from the Ente Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze, a bank foundation that mainly supports cultural events and art restorations.
What convinced them to provide seed money?
"Looking beyond the name at the research", says Paolo Blasi, a physics professor at the university who's on LINV's board of directors. "It sounds almost like a pseudoscientific field, but now even skeptics are convinced because of the validity of the work".
In addition to studies on the effects of music on vineyards, the center's researchers have also published papers on gravity sensing, plant synapses and long-distance signal transmission in trees. One important offshoot of the research activity is an international symposium on plant neurobiology. Next year's meeting will be held in Japan.
Leopold Summerer, advanced-concepts team coordinator at the European Space Agency, remembers that the term "plant intelligence" raised a few eyebrows when collaboration with the lab was proposed -even on a multidisciplinary think-tank team that's used to pondering ideas out of left field. Nonetheless, Summerer says plant research may provide important ideas.
"Biometrics can provide some of the most inspiring resources for us", he says. "Solutions found by nature that might not seem related to real engineering problems at first sight actually are related and give technical solutions".
Radical as the LINV sounds, if it weren't for a lone sugarcane stalk perched on a cabinet, the lab looks like any other.
While white-coated researcher Luciana Renna patiently tests for DNA markers, molecular biologist Giovanni Stefano analyzes data on two computer monitors around the corner.
During a visit to the lab's two greenhouses -where research is being conducted on the effects of light on olive trees and reactions in Venus flytraps and the Mimosa pudica- Mancuso points out a few neglected office plants sent there for a little TLC.
Mancuso, however, is no plant-whisperer. Under-tended plants are a long way from understanding sweet nothings spoken softly to them, he explains.
"Plants communicate via chemical substances," Mancuso says. "They have a specific and fairly extensive vocabulary to convey alarms, health and a host of other things. We just have sound waves broken down into various languages, I don't see how we could bridge the gap".
In 1966, Cleve Backster claimed that his Dracena plant could read his mind. More recently, botanists at Penn State University discovered that the five-angled dodder vine could hunt down its prey by scent. In fact, there is evidence to suggest that plants are not only intelligent, but they also communicate this intelligence to the ecosystem.
As Stephen Harrod Buhner states in The Lost Language of Plants (Vermont, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2002), "all things possess a soul, a sacred intelligence or logos" because all things are made from the sacred. Plants have demonstrated versatility with this sacred language. Some believe that man, who used to be able to communicate with plants, has lost touch with this language.
For example, healthy plants can sense what their community's need in terms of soil chemistry; they deliberately increase their production of the missing ingredients and send them into the soil for distribution. Trees that have been cut or injured are supported with nutrients through a network from neighbouring healthy plants.
Moreover, some believe plants know how cry for help. Ecologist Richard Karban of the University of California, Davis, examined this plant version of communication in a 2008 paper in which he details how plants release a complex blend of volatile chemicals when they are attacked by mites. These chemicals attract other insects that prey on these mites. Moreover, the volatile signals are "read" by neighboring plants which immediately "beef up" their own defense mechanism.
If problem-solving is one of the signs of intelligence, then some say plants are very intelligent. The dodder vine mentioned in the introduction of this article knows enough about its surroundings to bypass human throats for tomato stalks, which it embraces tightly before sucking out its juices.
The Amazonian Stilt Palm knows how to track its area for sunlight. Once it has found the right location, it sends out new roots and "de-activates" old roots that have grown in the shade.
Several studies also show that rhizomes know enough to "construct a three-dimensional perspective of their local space... to exploit resources, thus receiving rewards for successful behavior".
Plants can also change their genetic structure when they are under stress, and in a very short period of time, they can produce a highly variant offspring that can adapt to the new environmental demands. Their capacity to learn and adapt, discover solutions to problems attests to their evolutionary advantage –they learn to function within the ecosystem, not against it.
And yet another wonderful fact, though now about trees: if one makes a cut in two trees, confronted, they will turn their trunks so that the cuts be not in front of each other...
With just half of this, we can now consider trees and plants much closer to us than we thought for hundreds of years.
And then, knowing this, maybe respect them all instead of burning, or throwing them down like they were simple and senseless pieces of wood.