Tomato plants

Detection of electrical signaling between tomato plants raises interesting questions

Do plants talk to each other? After all, other non-human organisms seem to communicate, so why not plants? A couple of scientists have discovered that perhaps some plants do communicate with each other (perhaps being the keyword here). Instead of communicating via sounds, however, they do so by sending electric plant signals back and forth through the soil. This discovery has raised some interesting questions about the world of plants.

Some Plants Communicate Via “Plant Signals” – Electrical Signals Through The Soil

There are many things about our planet that are very active – alive, almost – that we can’t necessarily see with our own eyes or hear with our own ears. The passage of energy or electrical currents happens constantly – in the air, through waterways, and even though the soil under our feet. Two researchers have discovered that fauna actually communicates with each other via electrical signals – plant signals if you will – through the soil. (1)

The University of Alabama’s Dr. Yuri Shtessel and Oakwood University’s Dr. Alexander Volkov studied the transmission of electrical signals between tomato plants. They did this using both physical experiments and mathematical modeling. They have been collaborating on this research since 2017. Dr. Shtessel’s research specializes in control engineering. Control algorithms are applicable across many domains, which is why they are useful here. Dr. Volkov is a biochemist who has been studying these electrical plant signals. They have combined their expertise to write their most recent paper on the subject, which they published in 2020. (2)

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“Dr. Volkov is a prominent scholar in biochemistry. Once, we were talking about the electrical signal propagation though the plant’s stem and between the plants—plant communication—through the soil,” Dr. Shtessel said. “I suggested building an equivalent electrical circuit and a corresponding mathematical model that describes these processes.”

Plant Signals Using Fungi

It seems like a pretty far-out concept that plants could be passing electrical signals through the soil to communicate with one another. The answer as to how they do this lies within what exists in the soil: Fungi. Throughout basically all soil where plants grow, there is an extensive network of Mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi act as the “circuitry” that passes the signals between the plants.

The pair of scientists used the mathematical models for practical and economical reasons. Using the mathematical model, they could simulate the processes they studied on the computer. This prevented them from having to replicate long, expensive experiments.

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How Do Plants Make Electric Signals?

We often think of electricity as something more man-made, but truthfully, it is not. It has existed in nature since the beginning – we’ve just learned how to reproduce and harness it. Plants generate electrical signals that travel throughout their various parts. In the tomato plants that they studied, when their roots are separated so that there is an air gap between them, they couldn’t pass the signals across those gaps. That was, however, when the plants were as part of an experiment and not in soil. In the soil, it was quite a different story. Despite the gaps between plants, they could still pass along these plant signals via the fungi in the soil. It is as if the fungi are acting as messengers, of sorts. Like the carrier pigeons of the plant world.

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More Questions About Plant Communication

Their experiment, of course, is far from over. Now that we understand that plants do communicate with each other via electrical signals. We also know that these signals are passed from plant to plant using an extensive network of fungi that are present in the soil. The next question is: What are the plants communicating about, and why? Do these signals get passed between just two plants, or do they continue to pass the messages along down a chain? Can plants communicate with only the same type of plant, for example, tomato to tomato, or are they able to communicate across species? Dr. Shtessel seems to think all of that is possible – only determining what they are saying to each other is a different, much more difficult, task. They have yet to really try and study that, but in time perhaps they will. 

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Sources

  1. Detection of electrical signaling between tomato plants raises interesting questions.” PHYS. Jim Steele. July 10, 2020.
  2. Some plants are sending each other signals, Alabama researchers say.” AL. July 14, 2020.
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