Researchers in Singapore have developed a way to control Venus flytraps using electric signals from smartphones.
They say this could lead to a range of uses from robotics to employing the plants as environmental sensors.
Venus flytraps are perennial carnivorous plants, notable for being able to catch and digest their unusual diet of flies, mosquitoes and other insects and small animals.
Luo Yifei, a researcher at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University (NTU), demonstrated how a signal from a smartphone app sent to tiny electrodes attached to the plant could make its trap close as it does when catching a fly.
“Plants are like humans, they generate electric signals, like the electrocardiogram from our hearts,” said Luo, of NTU’s School of Materials Science and Engineering.
“We developed a non-invasive technology to detect these electric signals from the surface of plants without damaging them,” Luo said.
The scientists have also detached the trap portion of the Venus flytrap and attached it to a robotic arm so it can, when given a signal, grip something thin and light like a piece of wire.
This means the plant could be used as a “soft robot”, the scientists say, to pick up fragile things that might be damaged by industrial grippers, as well as being more environmentally friendly.
Communication between humans and plants is not necessarily just one-way and the NTU research team hopes their technology can be used to detect signals from plants about abnormalities or potential diseases before full-blown symptoms appear.
“We are exploring using plants as living sensors to monitor environmental pollution like toxic gas or water pollution,” said Luo, who stressed there was a long way to go before such plant technology could be used commercially.
But for Darren Ng, an enthusiast of the carnivorous plants and founder of SG VenusFlytrap, a group that sells the plants and offers care tips, the research is welcome.
“If the plants can talk back to us, maybe growing them will be even easier,” he told Reuters.
Venus flytraps do not rely on their carnivorous diet for energy but rather use the nitrogen-rich insect and animal proteins to enable their survival in marginal soil conditions.