The shift from working with electronics such as Arduino to biodesign approaches always felt like an abrupt one. Instead of abandoning my knowledge in physical computing, I wanted to incorporate them in the biodesign process.
Alessandro Volta, Luigi Galvini and Johann Wilhelm Ritter famously conducted experiments on frog legs and plants showing the correlation between electricity and nerve impulses. Today we know that many processes in our body like the heartbeat and synapse activity in our brain are steered through electrochemical activity. Experimenting with electricity in biodesign is therefore not far to seek. Related experiments are among others Garduino (Luke Iseman, around 2010) and Botanicalls (Robert Faludi, Kate Hartman, Kati London, Rebecca Bray, 2013). In these two works, communication between plants and humans are explored. Sensors measure conditions like humidity in the soil, temperature and light and can send you text messages if the plants require your green (or not so green) thumb. Pieces for Plants (Miya Masaoka, 2002) goes a step further by directly attaching electrodes to the plant leafs. The electric activity in the plants is interpreted and output as sound. People can thus hear the plants response to their presence and respond to the plant respectively. Greg Gage explores electricity not only as phenomena in plants but also as tool for how plants convey information. Mimosa Pudica and the venus fly trap both use electric signals to act. The Mimosa Pudica closes its leafs when touched and the venus fly trap closes her trap when fine sensors on the inside of the leafs are touched a specific amount of times within a specific time range. When recording the electrical activity when the plants act, electric signals can be observed similar to an action potential. Action potentials are distinct electric signals that neurons are firing, for example in the heart (EKG). Gage connects the two plants and uses the electric potential from the venus fly trap to trigger an action on the Mimosa Pudica. Although this cannot be considered real interspecies communication as the Mimosa Pudica only reacts to a signal from the venus fly trap, it pushes the discussion in an interesting direction. The projects before deal with electric activity that occurs in plants. The action potential of the fly trap shows that this electric activity can be used to convey information, in this case count how many times a signal hair is touched and respond accordingly.
Martin Howse deals with interspecies communication with his Radio Mycelium. It explores feedback loops between mycelium networks (mycorrhiza) and their environment. Mycorrhiza are similar to neural networks, facilitating inter-tree communication and influencing tree behaviour. The complex network enables collective memory-based interactions among trees and fungi. (Simard S.W., 2018) Besides fungi and plants, bacteria have to be considered when observing an ecosystem. As Willie Smits learned when reforesting a forest in Borneo, it is not enough to only plant trees, you have to also consider the right bacterias (Smits, W. 2009). Electric activity seems to occur in every organism, from humans, animals and plants. It's not surprising that electric activity has also been observed in biofilms - large organisations of bacteria - that might hint at a form of communication. In biofilms each group of bacteria performs a certain tasks. Bacterias closer to the surface focus more fighting off harmful organisms, whereas bacterias in the biofilm focus on food procuring. For these tasks, bacterias appear to use electrically charged particles to organise and synchronise activities across the biofilm (Scientificamerican, 2017). Going even beyond electrically charged particles for communications are bacteria that literally breath electrons, as observed by the MIT. These anaerobic bacteria have evolved a form of breathing by pumping electrons. By moving these electrons, they essentially generate a current (MIT News, 2019). Every lifeforms seems to have an electric activity, which serves different purposes from controlling and steering movement, transmission of information or breathing. But to which extend these signals can and should be interpreted stays open.
- Kuni, V., unter Strom, in Landwehr, D., Kuni, V. (2013). Home Made Bio Electronic Arts. Basel: Christoph Merian Verlag, p.31-37.
- Simard S.W. (2018) Mycorrhizal Networks Facilitate Tree Communication, Learning, and Memory. In: Baluska F., Gagliano M., Witzany G. (eds) Memory and Learning in Plants. Signaling and Communication in Plants. Springer, Cham
- Smits, Willie, How to Restore a Rainforest, (2009) [https://www.ted.com/talks/willie_smits_restores_a_rainforest]
- _ Interaction between elements of different kinds_ [http://www.howto-things.com/Interaction_between_elements_of_different_kinds]
- Bacteria Use Brainlike Bursts of Electricity to Communicate,[https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/bacteria-use-brainlike-bursts-of-electricity-to-communicate/]
- Technique identifies electricity-producing bacteria, (2019), [http://news.mit.edu/2019/identifying-electricity-producing-bacteria-0111]